I still remember the first time I saw it. It was 1998 and I was in Israel with that year’s 8th grade and I was so excited. I had wanted to go during my other trips to Israel but it never worked out but now I was finally here. I had seen old photos of this special place, read about it, even taught about it in my 8th grade Jewish history class which focused on the history of Israel. Now I was standing there where history had been made so many years ago.
Of course, I am referring to the room at the Tel Aviv Art Museum where 68 years ago today David Ben –Gurion declared to the world that the Jewish people were taking their destiny into their own hands and establishing the first Jewish sovereign state in 2500 years. A mere three years after the near decimation of the 6,000,000, the Jewish people were now the arbitrator of their own future. That room in 1998 looked as it had 50 years prior with the large portrait of Theodor Herzl flanked by the Israeli flags. I stood there, staring, trying to imagine what it was like to have been there on that day.
This week’s parsha is Kedoshim. In the opening verses of the parsha there is a Divine call, a mandate, maybe even a plea, to be holy. The reason given? “. . . for I am holy, HaShem your G-d.” This is not first time the Jewish people are commanded to be holy. In Parshat Yitro when the Israelites were about to receive the Torah they are told “You shall be a holy people.” The parsha is essentially a litany of various actions which either the performance of or the refraining from defines holiness. These actions include idolatry, certain offerings and how the remains of the animal are handled, giving to the poor and dealing honestly in business. The famous, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” the command not to give bad advice to an unsuspecting person, especially if you could benefit from that person’s mistake is part of this Holiness code.
What does it mean to be holy? The Hebrew root kadosh means to be separate for some kind of special purpose. When we recite Kiddush Friday nights we are declaring that this day, Shabbat, is separate from the other six days of the week for something different, something special. When the Jewish people are described as a Holy people, it means that we are a people with some special mission in this world. Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, the Ramban, (1194 -1270), the Spanish Torah commentator and philosopher writes that holiness refers to moderation, to acting with self-control in those areas which are in fact permitted.
To be kadosh, to be holy is to be special, but at the same time that holiness is also a responsibility. Being holy means that my actions count, what I do has an effect on other people. There is a midrash about two people in a boat. One of them began to drill a hole under his seat. When the other man protested, the first said, “but I am making the hole under my seat,” to which his companion responded, “Yes, but I will sink as well.” Almost every commandment given in the parsha, which the Torah is defining as the path to holiness, is about how we relate to other people in some fashion.
68 years ago today David Ben-Gurion stood in the Tel Aviv art museum and declared to the world that the Jewish people were now a self-governing, sovereign nation. The Jewish people were taking responsibility for their destiny. The prophet Yeshiya’s call to be a “light among the nations” took on new meaning that day. However, that call, as the parsha’s call of “You shall be holy” is our call. Our task is to bring holiness to life, to give holiness a new spirit. May we worthy of this sacred, this holy, mission.
Here is to 68 years of Israel's Independence.
Did you ever have the experience after having spent some time working on something on the computer you accidently hit a random key and the whole screen goes blank? Well, that happened to me early this morning as I was writing for this week’s parsha. I tapped a key by mistake and 45 minutes of work disappeared leaving a white screen in front of me. Being it was 3:00 am I resisted the urge (though I briefly considered it) to run screaming down the hall like a lunatic to wake my wife for her help to try to retrieve my work. Hurling the computer out of the second floor window onto the driveway below was also an option that was oh so tempting, but I forgot to unplug everything and thankfully was preventing from actually reaching the window. Alas, I just sat and stared at the blank screen and wondered what to do next. Okay, I said to myself, let’s try this again – just hit save after every paragraph. (save)
This week’s parsha is Acharei Mot, which opens with an elaborate description of the Yom Kippur ritual which Aaron in his role as Kohain Gadol is to perform. The Torah describes that Aaron is to dress in a linen tunic, with a sash and turban to match and bring a bull into the inner most sanctuary of the Mishkan, where the Ark, was held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, was kept. He was to bring a bull and two he-goats, one goat was designated for HaShem and the other was for Azazel. This second was he-goat was sent into the wilderness and the first along with the bull were both slaughtered as sin-offerings. (save)
However there was another element to this ritual. The Torah describes that there was a cloud that hovered over the Ark in which HaShem’s glory appeared. Aaron was commanded to burn incense and the cloud from this burning was to mingle with the Cloud already over the Ark. The incense offering cloud and the Divine cloud were to mingle, to connect to each other. (save)
The interesting part is that it is only towards the end of this entire description is Aaron to confess the sins of the people, placing these sins on the head of the Azazel he-goat which is sent into the wilderness. This is only one verse out of the thirty. (save)
The parsha is called Acharei Mot which means “after the death.” This refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. Parshat Shemini described that they died after entering this inner most sanctuary to offer strange fire that was not commanded. What is the connection here? Aaron is commanded to enter this area of the Mishkan not anytime he pleases, but rather only on one specified day of the year, the 10th day of the seventh month, which we know as Tishrei, and this is the date on the Jewish calendar as Yom Kippur. The Torah explicitly says that he should come into the sanctuary at any time “so that he shall not die.” While this is not the time to delve into what happened to Nadav and Avihu, they entered when they wanted with tragic results. (save)
Jewish life is one of rituals. We just celebrated Pesach. The steps of the seder are designed to help us relive the experience of the exodus. Rituals give us structure, they give us meaning. Rituals give us something to which to look forward. (save)
Jewish tradition is also a spiritual discipline. In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins, a management expert, writes that the common thread of very successful companies is their emphasis on self-discipline among its employees. There are prescribed ways in which rituals are performed, which adds to their power. Yes, at times things may seem regimented. Ultimately that regimentation is meant to uplift and strengthen us, as individuals and as a community, rather than merely restrict us. Our adherence to tradition, to our ritual practice is one of the features that makes Judaism great, such that we continue to pass it over to our children and our students. (save)
Shabbat shalom (save)
I am directionally challenged. Unless I know exactly where I am going I will end up lost. I am so grateful for the WAZE app. I have been able to navigate my way even to do food shopping without my making some wrong turn. To illustrate this one summer when I was in college a friend of mine who was a cyclist invited me to watch one of his races. I used a map to get directions to the race which started at 7:00 in the morning. He said that the place was close to my house. It was not until I saw a sign that said “Last exit before the New Hampshire border” (two hours from my house) that I realized I was probably going in the wrong direction (for the record and in my own defense, I grew up in Massachusetts). I did eventually make it to the race, and to my amazement realized that I was in fact only 15 minutes from home.
Tomorrow night we begin the wonderful holiday of Pesach. As with every holiday there are so many lessons to be gleaned. We can talk about the ideas of freedom and what it means to no longer be slaves. We can discuss the notion of chamaytz and just as it causes bread to puff up, we also can become puffed up. The matzah and its thinness represent the humility for which we should all strive in order to become better people. However, I am going in a different direction (and hopefully I won’t get lost).
Pesach to a certain extent is about having a vision. In Parshat Bo Moshe tells the Jewish people, “And when your children ask you, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Pesach offering to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” And the Torah further says, “And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean? You shall say to him, ‘It as with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage . . . “
These two verses capture the essential component of Pesach which is the mitzvah to tell the story of the exodus. They are significant for another reason. According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have often quoted, Moshe is telling the parents the importance of education, but not learning by repeating things learned merely by rote, but rather learning through asking questions. One needs to become active and engaged participants in the learning process. The genius of the seder is that it is supposed to be a give and take, a time of questions and answers. The rituals of the seder were designed to encourage children to ask questions. What is important about this, explains Rabbi Sacks, is that Jewish tradition made education the key to its survival and continuity. Many ancient nations built great edifices that still stand today. The Jewish people built schools and the teachers were the great leaders. The Jewish people are the only ancient nation that still alive and vibrant.
Tomorrow night we will sit down with family and friends at the seder. We will relive the exodus. We will recall, retell, ask questions and discuss their meaning. The seder is Jewish tradition’s WAZE app. Educating our children is to set a direction for the future - their future and the future of the Jewish people.
Hag Kasher v’Samayach,
A wonderful Pesach to everyone.
One morning earlier this week as I was making my children their lunch for school, I was listening to an interview with John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and one of the Republican presidential candidates. I heard him talking as I walked around the kitchen putting cookies onto plastic bags and wrapping sandwiches. I was not looking at the ipad screen, rather I heard his words. Prior to this I had not given much attention to this man, but after hearing his words I decided to pay more attention. His message was clear, upbeat and positive, a far cry from the negative rhetoric and rancor that has been emanating from the other candidates. At that moment I felt bad that this man most likely will not be president (Did I just give myself away politically? – for the record, I am a registered Independent, but I digress . . .).
This week’s parsha is Metsora and continues many of the ideas discussed last week in Parshat Tazria. The metsora was a person who was afflicted the Tzaraat, a skin malady manifested by white patches on the skin. It was diagnosed by the Kohain, and the treatment was quarantine from the community for a period of seven days, after which the individual needed to shave the hair from his body and bring offerings. As mentioned last week, tzaraat was a spiritual affliction with physical symptoms. The person was quarantined for their anti-social behavior so that they could think about their sin and reflect with the hope of doing Teshuva when rejoining the camp.
It is well known in Jewish tradition that tzaraat was the punishment for the sin of Lashon HaRah, evil speech, talking about others in a negative way. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the spelling of the word metsora in Hebrew is a contraction of the words Motseh rah, meaning “he brought forth evil.” When told he is healed the Metsora is required to bring two birds as part of his offering. Rashi explains the significance of the two birds. He says that birds are offered because of their propensity to chir andthat chirp is symbolic of the gossip and slander for which the metsora is punished. Jewish tradition acknowledges that Lashon HaRah is difficult for people to rid themselves. Indeed, many rabbis often use this parsha to speak about Lashon HaRah.
However, what about Lashon HaTov, good speech? While we speak about Lashon HaRah, and the reality is that most of us actually speak Lashon HaRah at times (I admit I am guilt as charged), do we give the same focus to Lashon HaTov and how good it is to speak positively? As we discussed last week, we have the power with our words, to build or destroy. We have the power to lift a person who is low, to encourage; to inspire. Our words can also send a person crashing down.
There is a story of a monastery located somewhere in the deep woods. There were only five monks left in this monastery as it was dying out. These remaining monks often did not get along with each other. Not far from the monastery was a hut where an elderly rabbi from the nearby town often came to study. The abbot from the monastery once visited the rabbi to ask him for advice that could help save the monastery. The rabbi answered him, “I have no advice. The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.”
The abbot returned to his monastery and told the rabbi’s words to his fellow monks. While at first they did not understand what the rabbi meant, a remarkable transformation began. Because they now had the mindset that one of them was the messiah, they began to treat each other in a way that would befit the messiah. Suddenly they saw each other in a new light. Slowly the squabbling stopped. They each found a new respect for their comrades since it was possible that one of them was the messiah. In the end there was a new life into the monastery, and others began to join. Ultimately the rabbi did indeed save the monastery.
Is this what I heard in Governor Kasich’s message? Not the fighting and name calling coming from the other candidates. Whether one agrees with his ideas or not is irrelevant – it is the positive message that is important. As we mentioned last week, King Shlomo, about whom Jewish tradition regards as the wisest of all men, wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in the power of the mouth.”
That wise, elderly rabbi gave the monks a gift. He taught them how to build. May we take that same gift, may we see each other as the possible Messiah and build and strengthen not only our school, our community but also each other.
Shabbat Shalom one and all.
This past summer I had the privilege of attending The Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. School leaders from around the world assembled in Cambridge, Massachusetts for one week in June to learn from and with Harvard’s best about school leadership. I went as part of a cohort of 15 Jewish educators from around the country though a grant given by the AviChai Foundation whose focus is to help produce top leaders for Jewish day schools. Whatever I did to attract Divine notice that should merit participation in this program I will never know, however I am ever grateful I had the experience. Our first session was presented by a man named William Henderson, a former principal in the Boston public school system who used several humorous anecdotes (by the way, besides that some of the smartest people teach Harvard, some of the funniest people teach at Harvard as well) spoke about the dynamic created in the school through the way we communicate.
This week’s parsha is Tazria. It, as well as next week’s parsha, Metzora, have a similar theme, that of the Metzora, the person afflicted with the malady called Tzaraat, often mistakenly translated as leprosy. Tzaraat is not leprosy rather it was a spiritual disease that was physically manifested by white patches on the skin. It was brought about by what is known as Lashron HaRa, literally, “bad speech.” We see this in two episodes in the Torah. The first, which is well-known, takes place in Parshat Behaalotcha where Miriam speaks about her brother Moshe and her perception regarding the relationship between Moshe and his wife. Through her slander Miriam is stricken with Tzaraat and must remain outside the camp for seven days of healing, which is the Torah’s mandate for the person with the disease.
The second episode comes much earlier, at Moshe’s encounter at the burning bush when he is given the task of bringing the Israelites out from Egypt. At one point Moshe says that the Israelites will not listen to him. The verse says, “HaShem said to him (Moshe), ‘bring your hand to your bosom’ and he brought his hand t o his bosom; then he withdrew it and behold he had tzaraat like snow . . . “ Rashi quotes the midrash on this verse explaining that Moshe was stricken with Tzaraat for saying that Israelites would not believe him. Unlike Miriam, HaShem immediately healed Moshe.
Indeed many rabbis use Parshat Tazria, and Metzora, to talk about speech. It is here that I want to bring it back to where we began. King Shlomo, about whom Jewish tradition regards as the wisest of all men, wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Death and life are in the power of the mouth.” This was one of Dr. Henderson’s points in his presentation. How we speak to another can make so much difference. We can criticize and degrade and “cause the death” of someone by how we speak to them or we can breathe new life into them by how we speak to them. While criticism sometimes is necessary, and Jewish tradition recognizes as such, doing so can and must be done in a way that does not demoralize a person, but rather in a manner that enables the person to grow and improve. We have the power to build people up, to encourage people, to inspire people through what we say. A simple compliment for having done something well, a text, or an e-mail or even a (perhaps obsolete in today's world?) note, can lift the spirits or inspire one in ways we don’t even realize.
Parshat Tazria teaches us that words have meaning, that words have power. May we use our words to inspire and not degrade, to build up and not bring down.