The Metzora and Pesach ? – on an unlikely connection

It would seem to make sense to read, during these Shabbatot, from the 4-5 first Torah portions in the Book of Exodus, but instead, we’re reading from some of the most intimate and obscure Torah portions: in the heart of Leviticus, the heart of the Torah, we find the metzora, erroneously often translated as one who is afflicted with leprosy.

We don’t exactly know what is the metzora. In a long discussion, the midrash (Vayikra Raba 16:2) explains:

משֶׁה מַזְהִיר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאוֹמֵר לָהֶם: זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְצֹרָע, תּוֹרַת הַמּוֹצִיא שֵׁם רָע

Moses warns the Children of Israel and tells them that the metzora is a “motzi shem ra”, someone who speaks badly about another.

The Biblical metzora has skin afflictions. This week’s Torah portion describes those in details, each depicting a different moral and spiritual fall, which gets progressively worse: first the person is called “Adam”, a whole human being, who has a spot in the skin. Then, the spot becomes the subject and the human being is secondary. Then, there is a “man or a woman”; and then, only a man, who has lost his ability to be in a relationship, and finally – a garment, a covering of the human being. It seems that the way the person interacts with the environment, is disharmonic with G-d’s will and the world.

Is there a way this can be related to Pesach, or might we end up with the impression that the Torah portions and the holidays are 2 totally unrelated, distinct cycles??

If we think about the mitzvot of the seder night, a quick glance will reveal that they all have to do with eating (matza, karpas, maror, charoset etc) and speaking (telling the story, singing hallel etc). Indeed, someone without a mouth, cannot celebrate Pesach. Further: the word Pesach can be separated into two words: peh & sach, meaning “a talking mouth”!

When the first human being was created, G-d breathed air into him and turned him into a nefesh chaya, which literally means “living soul”, but the ancient Aramaic translation describes as a “speaking soul”. The ability to speak is what made the first human that unique creature made in G-d’s image. That ability is what connects us to other humans and to the Divine, and it is therefore challenged all the time.

If so, it is perhaps no wonder that at this season of spring and new beginnings, the Torah reminds us of the power of speech and the ways it can be repaired, while during this season’s holiday, we’re asked to use our mouth, the limb that made us humans, for goodness: to enjoy, taste, bless, sing, educate and share in the joys of being truly free.

Shabbat Shalom, and soon, Chag Pesach Same’ach!

My mom’s childhood Hagada, Germany 1936

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Beginnings and ends – Shabbat Tazria, Hachodesh & Rosh Hodesh Nisan

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה, וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ:

Rabbi Shimon says: He who is walking on the way and repeating his studies, and interrupts his studies and says, “How lovely is this tree! And how lovely is this newly plowed field!” – Scripture considers him as if he is liable for [forfeiture of] his life (Pirkei Avot 3:7)

What is the emphasize in this teaching? Is it indeed that one who looks at a tree, we “considers him as if he is liable for his life”? what’s are we not allowed to look at trees? to enjoy nature? To say, wow, this is amazing?

Or perhaps it’s about the word “interrupts” meaning: “He who is walking on the way and repeating his studies, and interrupts his studies to see a tree…” he who sees no continuity between his (or her) learning and environment, his studies and nature around him, the kind of person for whom education is a theoretical aspect and not an integral part of life; who lives a split life between what’s in the books and what’s outside, is in danger.

This is especially true during the month of Nisan when we’re asked to go outside and look for a blooming tree to say the blessing:

“ברוך שלא חיסר בעולמו כלום, וברא בו בריות טובות, ואילנות טובות, להתנאות בהן בני אדם” – Blessed in the One who made the world lack nothing, and who created in it good creatures and good trees for people to enjoy.

Our relationships with trees go “way back”: The first tree was planted by G-d in the Garden. Later, we’re told that people are like trees of the field. Trees were used to build life-saving devices, like Noah’s ark, and to constantly give us life as food and shelter. This month let’s find a tree to appreciate, to learn from and with.

* * * * * * *

A woman brings two sacrifices after childbirth, an olah and a chatat. Why? Our tradition understands pregnancy as partnership with the Divine in creation. It is a way to literally – very physically, emotionally, spiritually – touch the future, with childbirth being a farewell to that process. Suddenly, the “future” is forced outside of her, leaving her behind. This brings tremendous feelings, both happy and sad, some of which repeat again when, years later, the “future” leaves home altogether. The Torah, in its wisdom, makes space to acknowledge this complex process davka for the woman, to celebrate and mourn the nuances of renewal’s joy and sadness, davka at this season.

*  * * * * * *

My cousin would not be happy with me connecting his life – or death – to anything remotely religious. All this “nonsense”, that was my department. And yet, last Shabbat, when Aaron’s sons, Nadav & Avihu, were swallowed in a strange, heavenly fire, and he too was laid to rest after battling with cancer, I couldn’t help think of the fire within him, always curious, interested, passionate, taking things apart and rebuilding them, figuring out how things work, why they don’t; loving life and wanting to do more.

In a way, cousins are like extended siblings. So it was for Nadav and Avihu who were carried out in their shirts by their uncle’s children. I, on the other hand, just sat here, 6000 miles away, stunned, silenced, looking at words on a screen, unable to do anything at all. His cancer left little room for surprises, so I was “lucky to visit before”, and yet, so much was left, and so much will be missed. May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom & Hodesh Tov.

Yehonatan Felix Ron – 1956-2019

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To Remember & Forget

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Spinning the goats – the Torah portion of Vayakhel

Not enough we spent two whole Torah portions talking about every details of how we will build the Tabernacle, now we start all over again to talk about how we are building it. Why the repetition?? What’s the big deal? Our People built a lovely worship-tent! Great. Can we move on now??

But we can’t.

First, I would argue that this is no doubt one of the greatest miracles in the Bible, if not ever. I know, what about the Sea splitting? The Bush burning? The Plagues, the Exodus? But that’s exactly it: everything that is done by G-d can’t quite be considered a miracle, because G-d by definition can do anything. As for us…

Imagine: we’re invited to bring whatever we have, whatever we feel like giving – gold, silver, beautiful cloth, wood. And we do. Generously. And, not only do we follow precise directions, but when we put it all together, it makes exactly this amazing prescribed structure. Nothing is missing and there’s no leftovers. How is that possible?? Yes, a miracle.

What’s more, it seems that this project was not planned initially at all – we were supposed to just leave Egypt and go to the Land! I can relate to such delays and changes in the original plan… Indeed, especially after the painful episode of the Golden Calf, much healing is needed.

Further: our reading does not open with the almost usual we might expect: ‘And G-d spoke to Moses, saying, gather the people’… but with Moses “gathering” the People. Who told him to do so? Who told them to come? But the whole Israelite community assembled (Exodus 35:1) we they will all jointly create a space for G-d in their midst. Thus, the Book which began in slavery, ends in “free collaboration”, working together willingly.

In the long list of those actively working on the mishkan, we find this (Exodus 35:26):

וְכָל־הַ֨נָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָעִזִּֽים׃

And all the women whose heart lifted them in wisdom, spun the goats.

Wait, what? Didn’t you forget a word at the end? Shouldn’t’ it be “goat’s hair”?? Maybe. But the Hebrew doesn’t say that. It says that the women – spun – the goats. Rashi explains based on the Talmud that “spun the goats” required extraordinary skill, for they spun the goat’s hair from off the backs of the goats, whist it was still on the living animals.

Here it is from the Talmud itself:

תנו רבנן: יריעות התחתונות של תכלת ושל ארגמן ושל תולעת שני ושל שש, ועליונות של מעשה עזים, וגדולה חכמה שנאמרה בעליונות יותר ממה שנאמרה בתחתונות, דאילו בתחתונות כתיב וכל אשה חכמת לב בידיה טוו ואילו בעליונות כתיב וכל הנשים אשר נשא לבן אתנה בחכמה טוו את העזים, ותניא משום רבי נחמיה שטוף בעזים וטווי מן העזים: (שבת צ״ט א:ב׳

Our Sages taught: The bottom curtains in the Tabernacle were made of sky blue wool, and of purple wool, and of scarlet wool, and of fine linen; and the top curtains were made of goat hair, even though that material is considered to be inferior and common. However, the wisdom that was stated with regard to the top curtains was greater than that which was stated with regard to the bottom ones. This is because, with regard to the bottom curtains, it is written: “And every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the linen” (Exodus 35:25); while with regard to the top curtains, it is written: “And all of the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats” (Exodus 35:26).

The phrase “whose hearts inspired them” suggests a greater degree of wisdom. Apparently, spinning the goat’s hair curtains required greater skill than spinning the various kinds of wool. And on a similar note, it was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Neḥemya: The hair was rinsed on the goats, and it was even spun from the goats, which required a great deal of skill ((Shabbat 99a).

So the women sit there, weaving heaven and earth to complete the mishkan; the colors of heaven – are closer to the ground, while the hairs of the earthy goats – up high. The word for goats is – עיזים izim, sharing its root with עוז oz, power, courage, strength.

The same women who began this book by quietly saving the people and their leader from slavery, now leave their mark at its end. Is it coincidental that the strength that “most people” (i.e. the men 🙂 would think as earthly and mundane, the women put up high, making it at times less visible from below?

There are many pairs in these Torah portions, from the way they appear (Teruma-Tetzave; Vayakel-Pekudei), to Moses and Aaron’s roles, and the two Cherubim. Throughout them all we learn that it’s not either-or, but that each is needed, not by changing into another but by being wholeheartedly – “no more and not less” – themselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

ויקהל: “וכל הנשים… טוו את העיזים”, שמות לה:26. ציור של אהובה קליין

 

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A matter of attention – the Torah portion of Ki Tisa

There’s so much in this week’s reading of Ki Tisa – a census, continuing to build the mishkan, shabbat and more, but the sparkly golden calf hides it all and calls our attention. We know the story: Moses didn’t come back and the people got worried. ‘Make a god for us’, they said, ‘who will walk in front of us, for this man Moses, we don’t know what happened to him’!! So the people are scared, feeling alone, needing something “Reall” to put their hands on, ok, but what exactly is so bad about it? We often hear it’s “avoda zara” / idolatry, but what is?? Just a couple of portions ago, they were commanded to bring everything they feel like donating, including gold, to build the Tabernacle. Why then and that was ok, while this, now is suddenly not?

Right after the Giving of the Law, the people were told (Exodus 20:20):

לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙

וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃

Therefore, you shall not make with me any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.

Two things threaten our faith: not seeing G-d at all – and – seeing Him…. After the revelation at Sinai, it became obvious that G-d can be revealed. The instructions of the Tabernacle made it possible for us to create a space for Him within us, as if this infinite, unfathomable presence, can be held. This holds great potential and along with it, great danger.

Rashi on the above verse says:

אלהי כסף. בָּא לְהַזְהִיר עַל הַכְּרוּבִים שֶׁאַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה לַעֲמֹד אִתִּי, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ שֶׁל כֶּסֶף, שֶׁאִם שִׁנִּיתֶם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם שֶׁל כֶּסֶף הֲרֵי הֵן לְפָנַי כֶּאֱלוֹהוּת:

GODS OF SILVER — This statement is intended to lay down a prohibition regarding the Cherubim which you will make to stand with Me — that they shall not be made of silver, for if you make any alteration in them by making them of silver and not of gold they will be before me (regarded by Me) as idols.

So, accordingly, we have a very specific warning: the Cherubim which you are about to make, make them of gold and exactly – exactly how I instructed you. If you make them of silver instead of gold, any slight deviation is — idolatry!!

If we look at the pronouns above, we’ll notice that G-d says: gods of gold – don’t make for yourselves. In this week, with regards to the Golden Calf it says:

וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־ה’ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אָ֣נָּ֗א חָטָ֞א הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ חֲטָאָ֣ה גְדֹלָ֔ה וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃

Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold.

Gold is one of the most valued and precious metals and it’s ok to use it to make things for G-d, that is not the problem, but it start being a problem when we use it “for ourselves”. Beauty, pride, even creativity – are good as part of a whole and can all become false gods if disconnected and used in the wrong manner.

In a seemingly unrelated article, Rav Kook teaches that the soul prays all the time, and that we should likewise  be in constant contact with the Divine. This often gets great pushback: ‘what do you mean pray all the time? You want me to be in shul 24/7? What about my job, my family, my gym membership, my hobbies? What kind of nonsense is this??’…

In an effort to respond, I compare what I think Rav Kook is saying to any other special relationship. For example, when someone is in a loving relationship, they usually don’t forget their spouse. Yes, they go to work and have hobbies and stop by on their way at the store, but even while there, they think, oh honey likes or dislikes that, and adjust their list accordingly, as opposed to saying, great, I am at the store where my relationship doesn’t exist. We don’t stop being in a relationship just because we are not home together; we take the relationship with us wherever they go. To bring the metaphor back, the Golden Calf is like buying a ring for the wrong person. A ring in itself is fine, but for whom and why is it given?

This is what I believe Rav Kook says and this is what the great tragedy of the Golden Calf points to, which goes back to the first question G-d posed to the first human being: איכה ayeka? Where are you? The Golden Calf teaches us that idolatry, while eventually possibly expressed in statues, perhaps most of all is about presence and attention in our relationship with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.  

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A taste of olive oil for the Torah portion of Tetzave

The Torah portion of Tetzave opens with the instruction to take olive oil for the menorah’s light. Why olive oil? What is so special about the olive tree and its product? While it’s possible that this was the most commonly used available oil then and there, throughout the generations our sages found additional meanings.

The olive received its fame already early on when the dove brought its branch back to the ark for Noah, as a message of new life after the flood (Genesis 8:11). The olive has been one of the seven species of the Land, nick naming it “—Land of olive’s oil. When King Solomon built the Temple, he paid for its wood in pure olive oil:

וּשְׁלֹמֹה֩ נָתַ֨ן לְחִירָ֜ם עֶשְׂרִים֩ אֶ֨לֶף כֹּ֤ר חִטִּים֙ מַכֹּ֣לֶת לְבֵית֔וֹ וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים כֹּ֖ר שֶׁ֣מֶן כָּתִ֑ית כֹּֽה־יִתֵּ֧ן שְׁלֹמֹ֛ה לְחִירָ֖ם שָׁנָ֥ה בְשָׁנָֽה׃ (פ)

and Solomon delivered to Hiram 20,000 kors of wheat as provisions for his household and 20 kors of beaten oil. Such was Solomon’s annual payment to Hiram.

We know of the use of olive oil for the Hanukkah menorah. Some use it to decorate the groom’s head on his wedding day. Seeing an olive in a dream indicates good business. The modern State of Israel opted for olive branches around the menorah as a symbol of peace. And much more.

The Talmud (Horayot 13:b) teaches that olives themselves detract from learning while olive oil – helps:

הרגיל בשמן זית מסייע ליה לרבי יוחנן דאמר רבי יוחנן כשם שהזית משכח לימוד של שבעים שנה כך שמן זית משיב לימוד של שבעים שנה:

The Gemara elaborates on the baraita: One who is accustomed to eating olive oil restores forgotten Torah study. The Gemara notes: This supports the opinion of Rabbi Yoḥanan, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Just as eating an olive causes one to forget seventy years’ worth of Torah study, olive oil restores seventy years’ worth of Torah study.

This is complemented by another statement (Menachot 53:b):

יצתה בת קול ואמרה לו (ירמיהו יא, טז) זית רענן יפה פרי תואר קרא ה’ שמך מה זית זו אחריתו בסופו אף ישראל אחריתן בסופן

A Divine Voice emerged and said to him the continuation of the verse: “The Lord called your name a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit.” Just as with regard to this olive tree, its final purpose is fulfilled at its end, when its fruit is picked, so too, with regard to the Jewish people, their final purpose will be fulfilled at their end, i.e., they will ultimately repent and return to Me.

The Netivot Shalom (1911-2000) teaches that “an olive is the only fruit that asides from its mere existence as such, hides within it a special power. After it is beaten down and smashed, it reveals a new power stored within it, the power to light a light, grow and sustain a flame. Just like”, continues the rabbi, “our souls, sometimes might need to get “wacked” through life’s “school of hard knocks”, yet often, it’s the trials and tribulations that bring out the best in us too, helping us light a bigger light”.

The olive therefore stands for our continuance growth. Olive trees never lose their leaves. When an olive tree is cut, there might be just a sad stump, but with care, it can come back to life. And while the wood can be used for heat and the fruit for food, the oil is used for light, which symbolizes our soul as individuals and as a nation.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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Building a house-tent for G-d – Parashat Teruma

A band of slaves left their servitude to be replaced with another, and the latter is not any simpler or easier: Just two weeks ago we read about the revelation at Sinai. What an event! We barely recovered from that experience to be thrown into a seemingly endless list of intrinsic and complex set of laws last week, and this week, we’re called to build G-d – a home:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

“And they shall make Me a sanctuary”? asked Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593, Tzefat, Israel) almost horrified: That the ears that hear this (borderline heresy) be saved!! How is it possible for G-d’s immense Divine light to be contained and dwell in a human-made building??”

The whole Mishkan consists of this magical paradox, creating defined space for the infinite G-d of all. This is expressed through every aspect: the materials, colors, artifacts, and more. Any step off the instructions, will land us in idolatry on one hand, and utter nonsense and nothingness on the other. Furthermore: G-d does not need a house at all. Why build it?? In this succinct 5-words-verse, a whole ideology is folded: If we join together to build a place to house the Divine, the Divine will dwell – not in it, but among us.

*******

Ok, fine, we’ll build this “thing”. But how? Should we just use our creative powers, establish committees, brainstorm ideas, get permits, compete for the best drawings, set up an extensive a fundraising campaign??

 כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ׃ (ס)

Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.

‘Don’t get creative on Me’, says G-d; ‘do it exactly as I show you’. Which is greater: to do our own thing, “freely” or to do G-d’s thing?? The Torah tends to think it’s much harder to follow directions. In that sense, I think the Torah portions of the construction of the mishkan describe the greatest miracle ever. G-d can always split a sea, shake a mountain, flood the earth and make a bush burn and not be consumed. But for us to follow directions? To work wholeheartedly in unison? To donate what we have? And for all of to come together and turn out to be something amazing and meaningful which houses the Divine? That is a miracle.

But these words – כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ – “Exactly as I show you”-which in English make sense, in Hebrew can have an additional meaning. The text should have said – ככל אשר אני מראה לך– exactly as I show to you, and not with the direct object, אותך – otcha. Accordingly, we can imagine G-d saying to Moshe: ‘the Mishkan, My dwelling place, is going to look exactly like you! Please, stop running around, solving everybody’s problems and sit still for a minute so I can draw you, the closest to perfect being there is on earth, and from that sketch submit the plans for the mishkan’. And Moses said, ‘me??? Look, I didn’t even shave this morning! They’ll see my wrinkles! And all my flaws! How about You pick someone different, maybe one of Aaron’s good-looking sons, or how about my beautiful wife’? And G-d said, ‘don’t get ahead of yourself. You are indeed the closest to perfection but you’re also just like any other human being, and I want My place to remind everybody of the deep, soulful connection between us’. This is why some say that the Mishkan’s artifacts resemble a human being (the altar being a smile and more), and some say that its structure resembles the various levels of the soul, one inside the other, until the inner most holy of hollies which is hardest to access and rarely anyone gets to see.

*******

Rashi based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 16) comments on the words —- “so shall you make it” –and adds ledorotam”  “forever” / “for future generations”. Does he mean that we will build the same mishkan over and over again? How is it possible? And why would someone who lived 1000 years ago, when this Mishkan was long gone, state that?? Rather, we might not build the same exact tent structure with the same colors, measurements and objects, but we should always aim to build a “mishkan” in our own time, whether at home or elsewhere, for G-d to live among us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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