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Purity

Living in the Golden Mean

Parashat Chukat opens with the law of the parah adumah — the red heifer. It is a classic example of a commandment for which the Torah offers no explanation. How are we to understand and grapple with laws such as this that we do not understand? Perhaps we need to start not with the question, why, but with the question, why not.

D'var Torah By: 
Empathy for the Refugee at Border Crossings
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Ann Landowne

In Parashat Chukat we are reminded of the difficulties that our ancestors encountered during their passage through the wilderness. We learn that Miriam has died (Numbers 20:1) and Moses has little time to mourn. Immediately he must deal with the thirsty Israelites clamoring for water and complaining about their fate. In our tradition, the Exodus from Egypt has solidified our strong identification with the stranger and their need for protection. Here in Chukat, this story of wandering in the wilderness also increases our empathy for the refugee, separated from family, desperate and in need of assistance. It is hard for us to imagine what they have experienced on their journey but our Torah teaches us to let them in.

Judaism, Medical Science, and Spirituality: A Brief History

The double portion, Tazria/M'tzora, discusses the priests' treatment of various skin ailments. It demonstrates a positive relationship between Judaism and medicine that has developed throughout the centuries.

D'var Torah By: 
The Priest as a Social Worker
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein

While Tazria/M'tzora introduces the role of priests as medical healers, it also suggests that priests served as social workers and spiritual healers, helping make both human beings, and by extension, the community, whole again.

You Are What You Eat: The New World of Kosher Food

Thousands of years ago, Judaism recognized the essential significance of food in the Jewish and human experience. Originally, without explaining “why” we should eat some, but not all types of different foods, the Torah in this week’s portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 11), laid down a lengthy list of culinary dos and don’ts, the textual foundation of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice and law. The Rabbis greatly expanded on this topic and today there are a variety of expressions of kashrut.

D'var Torah By: 
Finding Spirituality in the Dietary Laws
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Miriam Philips

Living in Israel after college, I found myself staying in a kosher home. I became so engrossed in the minutia of kashrut (the laws/practice of keeping kosher) that I gave little attention to the ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism. But surely kashrut should be a spiritual discipline, as I’d initially believed. Where was the heart I searched for? Sh'mini begins to answer the question.

The Jewish People Comes of Age

The author Anita Diamant boldly pronounced, "This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out" ("Minhag America," HUC-JIR graduation ceremony, April 30, 2008). Her words have not lost any of their resonance in the intervening years.

Alongside her words, we might place those of Rashi, as our Torah commentator of record, on this week's Torah reading, Parashat ChukatChukat begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.

D'var Torah By: 
Growing Up Means Taking Responsibility for Our Mistakes
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Schwartzman

Rabbi Skloot's reflections on Parashat Chukat are wonderfully insightful and inspiring. Indeed, this is a great time to be Jewish in America. Yes, we have traveled a long path to find the sense of security and self-confidence that allows us as individuals and as communities to openly practice our tradition, express our beliefs and just be ourselves. The example of the parah adumah (red heifer), along with Rashi and Rabbi Skloot's comments, hit home the idea of the importance of "owning" who we are and what we stand for.

Learning How to Say “Sorry”

"It's not my fault!"

We've all said it. It's rarely easy to accept responsibility for the mistakes we make or damage we cause. Sometimes we know instantly we've done something wrong; sometimes it takes time for us to realize the extent of our mistake. But even after that realization, it's always painful to say, "I'm sorry."

D'var Torah By: 
The Silent Third Partner
Davar Acher By: 
Laura Novak Winer

In my teen years, during one of many moments of theological questioning, I asked my rabbi, "Do you believe in God?"

"Laura," he said. "God is, for me, that special connection, that sacred space that exists in the relationship between two individuals."

It seems that here in Naso, this is where God exists as well. "When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with the Eternal, and they realize their guilt . . . " (Numbers 5:6). When an individual commits a wrong against another, God too is harmed, experiencing a betrayal, a breach of faith.

Bringing New Meaning to the Status of a Menstruating Woman

Theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray notes: "Women's bodies may be the hardest place for women to find sacredness" ( Sacred Dimensions of Women's Experience, 1988, p. 197). Our society sends negative messages to women from earliest childhood about the expected perfection of their physiques and the disappointments of any flaws in the female form. Parashat M'tzora, then, with its focus on menstrual impurity (15:19-24), seems to impart the same kind of unfavorable sense. Rejecting our own received biases and patriarchal assumptions about menstruation, however, can help us form a contemporary view of these so-called taboos.

D'var Torah By: 
Power and Autonomy in the Menstruation Taboo
Davar Acher By: 
Suzanne Singer

Rabbi Goldstein elegantly turns the traditional notion of nidah, menstruation, on its head: from a condition conveying impurity or even uncleanness, to one of sacredness and power. In a similar reconception, the author Judith S. Antonelli points out that since, "procreation, bodily secretions, and death all convey tumah . . . it is inaccurate to categorize tumah as 'death' and taharah [purity] as 'life,' for tumah itself comprises both life and death"1

Antonelli traces the negative connotations associated with menstruation to the rabbis of our tradition. The Babylonian Talmud, for example, states: "If a menstruating woman passes between two [men], if it is at the beginning of her period she will kill one of them, and if is at the end of her period she will cause strife between them" (P'sachim 111a, in Antonelli, p. 279). The medieval philosopher and physician, Nachmanides, believed that the child was formed from the woman's blood, but not out of her menstrual blood: "How could a fetus be formed out of that, since it is a deadly poison, causing the death of any creature that drinks it or eats it!" (ibid.)

On Illness and Separation from the Community

In his book The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition,1 Dr. Arthur Kleinman makes an important distinction between illness and disease. He writes:

Illness refers to how the sick person and the members of the family or wider social network perceive, live with, and respond to symptoms and disability. . . . Disease, however, is what the practitioner creates in the recasting of illness in terms of theories of disorder.

We see this distinction between illness and disease clearly in Parashat Tazria in the laws concerning tzaraat,— a skin ailment sometimes translated as "leprosy," its diagnosis, and the treatment of those afflicted with it.

The priests are practitioners. They want to know exactly what disease this person with a skin rash has, what are its symptoms, and — most important — what the person did to "get" the disease. In Leviticus 13:2-3 we read:

When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of the body. . . . when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce the person unclean.

D'var Torah By: 
A Change of Perspective Makes a World of Difference
Davar Acher By: 
Ron Segal

When I was fourteen and in the eighth grade, one of my great uncles died. In his will, he bequeathed his car to my parents. Oh, what a car it was — an immense, hideous 1960 Oldsmobile, solid steel, tail fins, and in a putrid shade of brown one would be hard-pressed to find even in the largest box of crayons. I will never forget the horrified expression on the face of the girl with whom I carpooled to school when she opened her front door that spring morning and beheld the brown chariot in which she would now be riding to school. I remember we made my father drop us a block from the school to avoid the humiliation of being seen emerging from that dreaded Oldsmobile. But, a few years passed and then, something remarkable happened — I got my driver's license. Amazingly, my perspective about the car instantaneously changed: "Oh big, beautiful, brown Oldsmobile . . . how I love you so."

I often reflect upon this bit of personal history when we come to these words of Parashat Tazria.

To Die in the Exercise of Your Passion

On Wednesday, August 7th, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a steel wire strung across the 130-foot gap between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — close to 1,350 feet above the ground. After a 45-minute performance he was asked, "Weren't you afraid that you were going to die?" While conceding, he replied, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."

Parashat Sh'mini contains the important and troubling story of Nadab and Abihu. It is the eighth day of the ceremony of consecrating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the priests. Aaron and his sons have been sacrificing animals all week long. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the offerings, and all is going according to plan. Suddenly Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron's sons, bring an additional offering of incense, which had not been commanded. They are immediately consumed by Divine fire; their bodies are dragged out of the Mishkan while Aaron remains silent.

D'var Torah By: 
Strange Fire in Our Time
Davar Acher By: 
Ari S. Lorge

When are you a priest? When are you a prophet? These questions present a constant tension for liberal Jews. When do we maintain what was passed down to us? When do we strike out on a bold new path? In Covenant & Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks lifts up the priests Nadab and Abihu, and their "strange fire," as examples of those who misunderstood their role and moment. Sacks uses the images of priest and prophet to set out a tension, as he writes: "The priest serves God in a way that never changes over time. . . . The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time."The priest attests to what is enduring and ritualized, while the prophet must be spontaneous and take his or her own initiative.

Holy Cow

It is the most enigmatic mitzvah in all of Torah: the parah adumah, the "red heifer." If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, she or he must go for ritual cleansing.

D'var Torah By: 
The Paradoxical Effect of the Red Heifer
Davar Acher By: 
Barry Block

Rabbi Kushner elucidates a great irony: those who prepare the ritual for purification are rendered impure by doing so!

There's More Than One Kind of Magic!

I do "magic" for preschoolers at our Kabbalat Shabbat. I make a Kiddush cup drink the wine. I fill a blank coloring book with colored pictures.

D'var Torah By: 
It Cuts Both Ways
Davar Acher By: 
Ira J. Wise

midrash says that there are four laws in the Torah that defy reason yet must be obeyed because they are divinely commanded.

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