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Purity

Finding Unique Blessings in Every One of Us

In the double portion, Tazria/M’tzora, we have the responsibility, even if it isn’t our pleasure, to investigate texts on birth and its aftermath, bodily afflictions and emissions, skin ailments, and leprosy. They were once taboos that raised fears in the community and turned priests of their day into guardians of purity.

D'var Torah By: 
Separation as a Path to Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Baht Weiss

A country road splits into two roadsRabbi Lyon begins

The Dietary Laws: Fitness for a Life Well-Lived

The dietary laws presented in the Book of Leviticus are intended to draw us closer to God. But even I, as a rabbi, sometimes have difficulty understanding how the Torah intends for this to happen.

The second part of Sh’mini (Leviticus 10:12-11:47) takes up the subject of food. Everything from taboos to general permissions are commanded forming the foundation of later, Talmudic, legal interpretations on what is kosher (fit for consumption) and what is t’reif (unfit). Reform Judaism has sought an authentic response to expectations for kashrut that would meet individual and contemporary norms.

D'var Torah By: 
Determining What Holiness Is in Our Lives
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Monica Kleinman

Reform Judaism's interpretation of dietary laws in Sh'mini has changed dramatically since the Movement's inception in the 19th century. We can see that contrast in the piece of the Pittsburgh Platform that Rabbi Lyons cites above regarding Mosaic laws and rituals: “They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

When We Seek God as a Partner

In Parashat Sh’mini we read of the death of Aaron’s sons who offered “alien fire” to God and were consumed. While commentators throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this tragedy, the text also guides us to appreciate the power of the choices we make.

D'var Torah By: 
Heartbreaking Silence in Response to Tragic Loss
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Lisa Delson

In the aftermath of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Parashat Sh’mini offers us a glimpse into the humanity of Aaron. Our hearts break when we read that Aaron’s response to his sons’ death is silence (Leviticus 10:3). 

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.

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