Friday, April 24, 2009

Drash Tzaria-Metzora 5769: Am I a Murderer?

Moving from all the death of Animals and children of last week, this week we get birth and disease. We start with the procedure for a mother after giving birth, we then move into the beginning of a rather long two portion discussion of Tzaarat, what in later time would be mistakenly called leprosy. This week, much of the text is about the clinical symptoms of Tzaarat, not only on humans, but on clothing as well. Finally we have the procedures for dealing with the Tzav, someone who has a sexually transmitted disease.

Chapter 12, which covers the birthing, reads:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child; then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstruation, shall she be unclean. 3. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days; she shall touch no consecrated thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 5. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying sixty six days. 6. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest;
Why is there a sin offering? Genesis 1:28 reads: And God blessed them, and God said to them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. How could a fulfillment of a commandment be a sin, particularly when the contrary position not having a child, is considered a really big sin? We read in the Midrash:
Ben ‘Azzai lectured: He who refrains from procreation is as though he shed blood and impaired [God's] likeness.[Genesis rabbah 34:14]
Someone who chooses to not have kids is for all intents a murderer according to tradition. So why is there a sin offering for fulfilling be fruitful and multiply? Twice in this section about birth we read in the days of her menstruation, shall she be impure. Leviticus 15:19 tells us that a woman is in menstrual impurity when she has a blood discharge. At the end of the seven-day period of the discharge she has to give an identical sin offering to this one at a birth. (Lev 28:30)
What is ta'amei, or impure, among animals, humans, buildings and clothing is all covered among chapters 11 through 15 in Leviticus. Such things as non-sacrificial animals and disease make sense, but what of menstruation? The blood of menstruation and childbirth is not voluntary; it comes with being a fertile woman and the process of birth. But it is in a very literal sense the shedding of blood, and it is that blood that renders the woman ritually impure. The loss of any body fluid is considered something defiling, and thus requiring a sin offering. The male equivalent of this is wasted seed, and this too is bloodshed, but again it may happen involuntarily, and thus is not punished like murder. Sin offering is for the sins we due to ignorance or lack of control. The worst punishment is the price of a pigeon.
This brings us back to ben Azzai and his quote about bloodshed. If this is outright murder then the death penalty applies. And as soon as ben Azzai says these lines he is called a hypocrite:
Said R. Eleazar to him: Teachings are becoming when they are uttered by those who practice them, but you, son of ‘Azzai, preach well, but do not fulfil your teaching! That is because I desire to study Torah, he pleaded, while the world can be preserved through others.[Genesis Rabbah 34:14]
Ben Azzai was too busy studying to actually have children and left the preservation of the world to others. Ben Azzai however meets an untimely end. Ben Azzai using meditative means enters the higher realms. With nothing to ground him in this world, his soul does not return, killing his body. The executioner in such cases is not a human one but God.
This really worries me. If one takes this literally, it means I am a murderer and will meet an untimely end. A few years ago just after starting my master’s degree in Jewish Studies, I made a very agonizing and very personal decision to pursue my studies to the exclusion of having children. My view is that I could do one or the other well, I could not do both effectively. According to ben Azzai, that is a death sentence.
I am not alone here in my death sentence. Every Jew who decides not to have children is in this same conundrum. While the rest of the world has to worry about population growth, American Jews are concerned about population shrinkage. We are in a very real sense diminishing the Jewish people. Such is also true of intermarriage, as by traditional accounting when a man marries a gentile woman, there will be no more Jews from him, killing the people.
Only four times in all of Talmud, Mishnah, and Midrash, was ben Azzai called a rabbi though he is referenced over two hundred times. He was the perennial student, always studying or arguing with his teachers, like R. Akiba, but never really doing anything with his learning outside of the academy. Baba Metzia 33a, however reads:
If [a man's] own lost article and his father's lost article [need attention], his own takes precedence. [if] His own and his teacher's [then] his own takes precedence; [if] his father’ s and his teacher's [then] his teacher's takes precedence, because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher. ‘who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world.

And in K'rithot 28a,
So it is also with the study of the law; if the son has been worthy [to sit] before the teacher, the teacher comes before the father in all places, because both a man and his father are bound to honour the teacher.
Even though the Ten Commandments and much of Torah says to honor you mother and father, one is to honor your teacher more, because a teacher is a parent of the good soul, and can teach physical parents too. In the end of tractates Berakoth, Yebamoth, Nazir and K'rithoth, we read a saying by R. Eleazar, who also pointed out ben Azzai's hypocrisy, pointing out a solution:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the Sages increase peace in the world, as it is said, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children(Is. 54:13) . Read not ‘thy children’ [banayik], but ‘thy builders’[bonayik]. [K'rithoth 28b]

There are many ways to kill the next generation or build it up. One is by bodies in this world and one is by souls for the world to come. Both the physical and the spiritual need to be addressed, neither by itself is enough. Those not addressing one must address the other. Ben Azzai, who was so stuck in his books he did not teach, rarely seemed to do this. Those of us who do not have the children to save the Jewish people should at least try to save the soul by teaching and inspiring. Too many parents are too busy trying to raise their children to teach them the Shema, as it is written and you shall teach them to your children. That is where those us who do not have children come in, and where we can change from murderers to respected builders and builders of builders, of children from 2 to 92.
I am not a murderer. On the side of my desktop computer, I have a sign in Aramaic to remind me of that every day: R.Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: He who teaches his neighbor's child Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him. [Sanh. 19b] In my mind, and in many ways in the minds of the rabbis, the best way for some of us unable to have children is to Teach and inspire. I have made my decision to be a teacher, and I believe in perfect faith that this is what God intended for me. May it be the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that I and many others inspire others to the beauty that is Torah.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Shmini 5769: A Diet of Alien Fire

This week we have the last of the sacrifices for the dedication of the Mishkan with a glorious ending. But then tragedy strikes:
1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered alien fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.[Leviticus 10]
Following the aftermath of Nadab and Abihu’s death, we have the prohibited and permitted species to eat, the core of the rules of kosher food.
I’ve looked at this portion in so many ways, as a food safety person, and as an exegete trying to figure out what Nadab and Abihu were doing. Yet, there is something that I’ve never written about when it comes to this portion, tying together those two seemingly different ideas. It has to do with pants.
I just bought my first size 40 waist pants. Now individual bodies change and vary so what size pants any given person never wanted to own might be different. But for me it was a 40. It was upsetting, as upsetting as realizing the reason I felt uncomfortable all the time is that none of my clothes fit. So I’m going on a strict diet.
I did this once before, and in the last five years have been slowly slacking off. But that diet was successful, losing 35 pounds rather quickly, maintaining that weight for three years, and then gaining them back over the last two. Thinking of what I did then and what I’m going to do now made me think of aish zarah, alien fire. I’m thinking of Nadab and Abihu’s alien fire differently. Aish zarah is what we don’t have to offer or do. It’s the kind of fire that is superfluous. Removing alien fire is really the most basic weight loss diet – literally.
Basically, calories measure fire, they measure the amount of fuel burned. Different kinds of foods have different amounts of fuel, and contribute to the fire that is our life force. In such a view alien fire would be the calories we don’t need. My first attempt at a diet happened around the same time as the Atkins Diet craze. While I did not do the Atkins diet, Atkins did focus on what I thought might be a target for a diet: my intake of carbohydrates. What I did do was limit my intake of carbohydrate to a specific limit. I had found I have a very large intake of carbohydrates. Most of the things that I was eating I really didn’t need to eat. Much of my carb intake was aish zarah, so I focused on cutting that, with rather stunning results.
The first time I did this diet, I thought of carbs in a parallel to the last part of this portion, the permissions and prohibitions of eating different species. Very much like a pig in this week’s portion, carbs for me were a spiritually forbidden food. To look at a piece of cake was like looking at bacon. Not only were they forbidden, they weren’t even appetizing or even something that made sense to eat. And so, stripping hundreds of grams of carbohydrates a day from my diet, I lost most of the weight in a mere three months. I kept to that philosophy of excessive carbs as trief. In the months after that, such an attitude kept me at a low weight. Eventually I somehow faltered however, and lost my way, only to slowly gain everything back.
In the wake of a Passover that fell during Easter I’ve though a lot about eating, and the significance of our eating patterns and how we get ourselves into the inconsistencies that got me heavy again. For Passover, we change our normal patterns of eating. For some this could easily become a very simple low carb diet. Eat the one required piece of Matzah a day, and restrict all other carbohydrates and you’re observant of the Mitzvah. Instead, any given way of using potato starch and eggs shows up in recipes. But what really gets me is the people who in being Passover observant, go out and order a lobster dinner but refuse to have a bread basket on their table. Of those who did go to Easter events, how many ate ham while munching on their matzah? Such absurdity happens all the time. My favorite personal example was the time, many years ago, when I picked the bacon out of my clam chowder. Picking out the Bacon in a prohibited cream base with prohibited shellfish simply doesn’t make sense. It was in the wake of that I changed some of my own observances.
My own current observance of kashrut is far from strict or traditional observance. I eat no red meat for example, even kosher red meat as I more strictly adhere to “you shall not eat its blood” Yet I do eat poultry and fin fish, though I do not eat shellfish. I follow the logic of a minority opinion in the Talmud that of Yossi of the Galilee who believed the prohibition of dairy mixing with meat did not extend to poultry. It may not be according to the rules we read in this portion, but in my observance, and in my own way I say “I love you God” by not eating these things.
As much as I enjoyed bacon and lobster when I was far younger and rather agnostic, I don’t either crave them or miss them now. They are food for other people in my mind, not for me. So too I must think about the excessive things I put into my body. Many of them taste incredible, like a big hot fudge brownie sundae. But to have one frequently is alien fire, and damaging to me. I can enjoy myself, and can find things that taste good, and are indeed on my diet such as a small piece of 70% dark chocolate, or a sprig of broccoli.
One of the big problems with diets is our insistence that the things we are giving up are good, when often their long term effects is about as opposite from that as we can get. But maybe by looking at “I can’t live without Bacon” or “I can’t live without chocolate cake” we are looking at the issue wrong. Hillel taught that our bodies are the vessels for a bit of the Divine which is our souls. It is up to us to care for that vessel, out of respect not just for ourselves, but for its passenger, the nefesh, that bit of God in us. To eat healthy is to say “I love you God” as much as not eating Ostrich or Ham or a Cheeseburger.
I guess for the last two weeks I’ve been saying the same thing: Do not complain that you cannot eat something, but bless that you have the ability and holiness to refuse to eat it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Passover 5769: The Bread of Affliction?

As I was driving home last week I saw a sign on a synagogue that disturbed me. On one of those outside announcement signs that usually say something like “JUF FUNDRAISER APR 1” or LEVY BAR MITZVAH AUG 30 I read the following: HAVE AN EASY PASSOVER.
I don’t normally get angry at signs, but this one really bothered me. It read too much like another sign which you sometimes see around Yom Kippur: HAVE AN EASY FAST. Now I’ll be the first to admit the fast of Yom Kippur is not an easy one, but for the observant in the northern hemisphere, it’s a piece of cake (so to speak) compared to the longer fast of Tish B’Av. Passover is far from a fast, indeed for two Seders and all those leftovers one could easily be stuffed. Many a Seder I feel like God’s angry retort to the people complaining manna isn’t enough, they will be so stuffed it will be coming out of their noses. [Numbers 11:20] To be honest I’m very happy I’m that stuffed.
I’ll also admit there is one very difficult task that happens before Passover: getting ready for Passover. Cleaning the house, preparing the food for the week and changing the dishes is not an easy task by any means. For me that means cleaning a small studio apartment, paper plates and preparing my Yemenite Haroset, and that is hard enough compared to what family households have to do. But the sign did not say Have an easy preparation for Passover. It was implying Passover is hard. Eating Passover foods and prohibiting the seven species of grains for one week is some kind of affliction on our lives according to that sign. I have a problem with that.
Right at the beginning of the Seder, we read about Matzah as an affliction in the Haggadah:
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are starving come to eat. All who are needy come to the Passover meal. This year here. For the year to come in the land of Israel. This year as slaves, for the year to come as free men.

As one of the Aramaic passages in the Haggdah, I expected to find the passage quoted in Talmud Balvi. In looking up this passage, I could find no Talmudic mention of the passage. Medieval sources such as the Rambam and Ramban quote it completely. Wherever its original source, It is based on a biblical passage indicating the procedures for Passover:
3. You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread with it, the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste; that you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. [Deuteronomy 16]

While the Talmud did not explicitly mention the haggadah passage, the idea of such a passage does come from a Talmudic source
Samuel said: Bread of [‘oni] [means] bread over which we recite [‘onin] many words. It was taught likewise: ‘Bread of [‘oni]’ means bread over which we recite [‘onin] many words. Another interpretation: ‘Bread of [‘oni]’: ‘ani [poverty] is written: just as a beggar generally has a piece, so here too a piece [is taken]. Another interpretation: just as a poor man fires [the oven] and his wife bakes, so here too, he heats and she bakes. [Pes 115b-116a]

In a series of word plays on the word for affliction,’oni, the rabbis note that the word for affliction could also mean poverty and recitation. They made the conclusion it could mean both. We are to recite many words over the matzah to tell its story and why it is so significant. Read another way, we are to not bless over a whole matzah like a rich man but like a poor man. We are to have only a piece, which is why we break the middle matzah in two. Finally a poor man has little wood and has to bake very quickly, so too we need to bake in haste as though we are poor men.
The Talmud also mentions another passage which I find instructive. To answer the four questions, the Talmud instructs to so in the following way:
According to the son's intelligence his father instructs him. He commences with shame and concludes with praise; and expounds from ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ until he completes the whole section.[Pesachim 116a]

The text tells us to use a passage from Deuteronomy, related to the first fruits offering:
5. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery; 7. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression; 8. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders; 9. And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey…11. And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. [Deuteronomy 26]
Today’s Haggadah not only recites this passage, but the whole story of the Exodus, with many commentaries along the way. The recitation of Deuteronomy 26:5 gets expanded but now reads An Aramean tried to destroy my father, a reference to Laban by changing the meaning of the word for wandering to destroy. But the point of the Seder and Passover is found in verse 11. We are to rejoice in every good thing in our lives. We are to remember that God blessed us. One of the most powerful of those blessings was freedom. We ate matzah because we were leaving affliction behind, not that Passover is an affliction, like that synagogue sign seemed to imply.
To say Passover is an affliction is to be like the people in the desert of Numbers 11, who were whining things were so much better in Egypt, the same ones that God wanted stuffed to their nostrils. The status quo of slavery for them was apparently better than being free and eating manna. They were saying that the freedom we were granted by God on Passover is not worth anything. That sign said the same thing. It was saying the bounty that is on our tables for Passover is not worth anything. Is a few muffins, oatmeal and a slice a bread so horrific to go without?
Through the Passover story, the bread of affliction transforms into a bread of freedom. As, the bread of affliction the passage relates, it is the transformation from slavery to freedom, from starving to full. Like the people in the desert we too can be slaves to the status quo. Like them, it is then we suffer and perish.
Passover, like the first fruit offering, is about counting the blessings we have been given. Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday. It is not the most observed holiday because it competes with other holidays, as does Hanukkah. It is not due to some deep meaning of praying for our soul like Yom Kippur. Passover is the ultimate home holiday, the one where we surround ourselves with family and friends and celebrate all that we have. Every bite of matzah is not an affliction, but a blessing of having all of this around us. It is a blessing in hearing the noise of the kids, the blessing of making all that food, it is a blessing in hearing a young one saying the four questions, or belting out Dayenu off key. It is a blessing in trying to stuff too many chairs into too little space for all those people to be there. It is the blessing of having that first Hillel sandwich, and chicken soup with matzo balls. While the seders may go on for two evenings, Passover goes on for seven days, which might seem a lot, but each one has its blessing. Everything that is traditional for Passover, even refusing foods, is a celebration. Freedom is not just that oppression had ended but that we can now choose what we do. To choose not to eat hometz is a choice we can make that is demonstrating our freedom. We show that we will not give to the oppression and slavery of craving or habit.
It is also a reminder not everyone does have those blessings in their lives, and our responsibility to help those who need the help, to bring those people blessings as well. Maybe this year is bad for them; next year will be good for them with our help. A Hasidic rabbi once stated that “Next year in Jerusalem” is not about a place but a state of mind. We are in a state of blessing, as though we were at the temple in Jerusalem. Next year in Jerusalem is not about just us, but about everyone being there, and about bringing everyone to such a state.
So when we read in the Aramaic, Ha lach-ma Anya, remember the week of Passover is not one of affliction, but of celebration.
May everyone have a joyous Pesah, filled with blessing.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Tzav 5769: Fires, Bridges and Bottles

This week’s portion has near the beginning:
5. And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out; and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. 6. The fire shall be burning always upon the altar; it shall never go out. [Leviticus 6]
This is one of two places we read of a fire not going out. The other is the lamp:
20. And you shall command the people of Israel, that they bring you pure beaten oil olive for the light, for the lamp to burn always. 21. In the Tent of Meeting outside the veil, which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord; it shall be a statute forever to their generations on behalf of the people of Israel. [Exodus 27]
Two fires burned continually in the Mishkan, one on the altar and one on the lamp. Even today all synagogues keep a lamp lit continually, a ner tamid. When last week it was pointed out to me the verses we read this week in the synagogue, I had a lot to think about continual burning, about having these fires there all the time.
Interestingly, the altar is tended to in the morning and the lamp in the evening. For the night the attention is to the lamp, in the day to the altar. Why all this light and fire, besides the use of keeping the sacrifices burning?
Once again I believe this is a case of communication with God. In the past week I overheard a few conversations in various places which made me pause to think. A week ago I was in a coffee shop listening to two of the counter help talk about their cel phone use. One describes how she calls her boyfriend, he then answers and they carry their cell phones around with an open connection all day even though they don't say anything to one another. They might even watch two different television shows at the same time, once in a while making a comment to the other. At the time I thought it was a bit of a waste.
When I bought my cell phone plan I never expected to use up 99 text messages. I never saw the point. I watch people much of the time texting away and truly wondering what was so important that they couldn’t dial the person, have a short conversation and hang up. Why spend the whole day going back and forth on text messages?
My first inkling of what was going on came with my use of the internet messaging system known as Twitter. Twitter is comprised of small messages of no more than 140 characters which are sent out to a huge pool of messages. People can filter those messages by “friending” the sender, and thus become part of the conversation. Most users of Twitter may have many people they have friended, and may continually get into conversation with them. The compact size of Twitter messages, or tweets, make them ideal for mobile platform like iPhones and Blackberries while allowing for quick, short interactions. Yet as I learned, it is way too easy to leave up the Twitter connection and listen and converse all day, every day, as I experienced over the last week of December being the only one in the office all week. Twitter was on nonstop all day so I could have a connection to someone else in the lonely office. I’ve thought about this as well looking at the volume of e-mails I’m sending out lately and where most of them are headed to. I’ve also lately been getting closer to that 99 per month text message limit. I’ve been having a need to connect with someone lately and often.
Human beings are not meant to be alone. However, John Donne was wrong, all men are islands. Every human being is isolated from everyone else. Yet these islands are close enough that we can build bridges or send messages in bottles. As the classic song Message in a Bottle by the Police describe it:
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home

Bridges to other islands take many forms, as do message in bottles. Even if a bridge is not used, there is a sense of comfort in having the bridge always there. All that electronic communication by cell phone, text message or Twitter all points to the same thing: our need to connect off of our own little island. The bridge's importance is not in its use, but that the bridge is there to be used if we want to. A cell phone with silence, but the knowledge that some will talk to you if you speak into it is more of a comfort than many will be prepared to admit.
For humans of course there are more than electronic methods of communication. Nothing beats face to face contact. Sitting down by someone and merely looking at them is a far more powerful experience than anything done on an internet service. Being in the room makes a huge difference. Judaism often makes sure there is such contact, from the minyan required for the recitation of Kaddish, to the Passover Seder, to shiva calls and visiting the sick, to the debate of a hevruta. Face time is important and vital to our well being. Yet, what about God, who we cannot see face to face and live?
Like the electronic bridges and bottles of a cell phone or Twitter, just leaving the line open is a connection. One such connection is found in the eternal fire. It is the carrier signal, the sign that communication is open between the Divine and us. It is the hiss in the background of an open cell phone connection. Even if we are silent, there is connection and communication. In light and smoke, it is a statement that we want to communicate, if only we had something to say. In tending the fire and adding the firewood, the priesthood kept the connection going to God who is looking to us as a partner in creation and communication.
Yet today we have no altar. A continual fire is only in the ner tamid of the synagogue. Or is it? While it may not be continual in the sense of never going out, there may be something to replace the altar. One can remain on the internet non-stop, receiving information. Or at a specific time every day one can get on and check e-mail and chat. Just the act of that one daily ritual may accomplish the same thing as nonstop communication. Checking in with one regularly may indeed be even more powerful as we do not take the connection for granted, which we might for a nonstop connection. In my mind at least, the lighting of candles before Shabbat, Passover or any holiday is that periodic reconnection. By doing it under regular circumstances, we make the connection forever, yet we do not take it for granted. It becomes far more precious. The fires of Shabbat candles are as sacred as the altar. We connect with God and make those bridges with the lights of those candles. The eternal fire continues, not in one altar in one place, but candles everywhere at sacred times.