Today, I am grateful for:
- People who care about my professional growth
- Co-workers who are nerdy
- Having a flexible enough schedule to pop over to NYC for the weekend
Today, I am grateful for:
Today I am grateful for:
BONUS ROUND: ALSO! Ta-Nehisi Coates.
For the last two days of Rosh Hashanah:
Two sets of gratitudes for Friday and Saturday, in no particular order:
Today I am grateful for:
Today I am grateful for:
For my service leading class this semester, I am doing a lot of internal work. Next class (which is next month, thanks High Holidays!) is about gratitude and praise prayer, so I am keeping a gratitude journal on here for the next month. Today, I am grateful for:
My kitchen is kosher. I got scalded a few times, poured water all over my (tiny tiny) kitchen. I had to get rid of my wok, and all of my ceramics. Sitting in their places are two new sets of dishes, blue-gray and white and tasteful, from IKEA. I still need frying pans, and some new pots, and to figure out where all of my silverware is going to go.
One of the bigger misconceptions about kashrut is that it’s about saying a prayer. “Oh, the rabbi blessed the meat, and that’s why it’s kosher!” There are blessings involved, when you shect (ritually slaughter) a cow or when you immerse your dishes in a mikvah (ritual bath) for the first time. But mostly, kashrut is about checking, and hard work. To kasher a pot, you must boil it, or blowtorch it, until it is scalding to the touch. To kill meat in a kosher way, you must use a knife clean across the jugular. It’s about getting up close and personal with your divinity. It’s prayer, but it’s prayer that makes you sweat, makes your back ache, makes you feel in your body how much you want to serve God.
A lot of Judaism is like this. When we pray in the morning, we wrap tefillin around our arms and our heads, leather straps that cling to our skin and leave marks. We suffer with no food (Yom Kippur) or with food that stops us up (Passover). And for folks with penises, there’s circumcision, perhaps the most viscerally way to demonstrate religious conviction.
So why not just prayer? Why performance of mitzvot which are exhausting, and time consuming, and physical, instead of prayer? For me, there is a certain satisfaction in doing things that I don’t necessarily always feel in saying words. I am a person who lives in her head; words come easy to me. Actually doing things that are exhausting and inconvenient, that is so much harder.
I am currently learning Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuvah, and he teaches that, in order for someone to demonstrate proper repentance, they must publicly proclaim their wrongdoing, and then never do that thing again, even when faced with exactly the same situation. Judaism understands that, for so many of us, words come easy. In order to reinforce that what we are doing is worthwhile, we need to back up our words with actions. Even, especially, when it leaves us sore or sweaty.
One morning, you awake to find a patch of white flaky skin on the back of a hand. You scratch. It doesn’t come off. You scratch a little bit more. It still doesn’t come off. You start to panic. You wake up your spouse, who goes to get the local priest. He comes into your home, takes a good long look at your hand, and says one word “tsara’at,” skin disease. Wordlessly, fearfully, you pack your things, move out of the house, and go to the colony of the afflicted outside of the camp. You will wait there, praying and meditating, hoping to be healed. The skin goes from white and itchy to dull pink and sore, like the aftereffects of a wound, and then it is healed. The priest, who is on his daily rounds, comes and checks your hand. He declares you clean. You joyfully send word to your family, “prepare the sacrifices; I’m coming home.”
The story I just told you is the beginning of Parshat M’tzora, which deals with the sacrifices needed to purify people with skin disease. It’s one of the more perplexing parshayot in the Bible, and one that is more challenging to modern audiences. Which is part of the reason why I love it.
But why do I love it? Why do I have such a passion for a story that seems so strange, whose values seem so different from ours, a story that advocates for isolating people and turning them out of their homes because of a skin disease? One of my former teachers at JTS, Rabbi Neil Gillman, helps me to answer this question in his book Sacred Fragments. In this book, he claims that the Torah is the sign of God’s love for us. And so, how might we approach Torah as part of a loving relationship? Part of a loving relationship is seeing the whole person, flaws and strengths and beauty and ugliness, and really and truly accepting a person for who and what they are. Similarly, we need not agree with the whole Torah (and indeed there are plenty of parts that I find confusing or downright distasteful) but it is our duty to engage. For us, saying “well that is irrelevant” or “that story didn’t really happen” or “how barbaric!” must be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. Because when we love something, or someone, we strive to understand it completely.
How might we understand Metzorah, the story of purification, completely? There are many ways of understanding a text completely, so that it speaks to us today. We might see the purification rituals as a metaphor for the need to mark moments of transition in our lives. The text speaks of taking a period of impurity after giving birth to a child. What if we saw that as a metaphor for recognizing the danger and transformation in certain moments, such as the death of a loved one, or recovering from a long illness, or taking a transformative trip, and recognizing that moment with a period of separation?
We might try another metaphor and compare impurity to gossip, which spreads its destruction throughout communities and must be carefully contained to avoid contamination. We could use this story, as rabbis have done for hundreds of years, to teach ourselves about the importance of proper speech and behavior, and the potentially destructive things that happen when we do not. No matter how we choose to interpret this story, there are a variety of ways to make it relevant to our lives, to teach us something about how to live in the world.
And that’s just for Metzorah, a portion about skin diseases. Think of how many more stories, questions, and interpretations might be contained within the rest of the Torah! Certainly enough to keep Jews entertained, and arguing, for another 2500 years. Because every generation creates the Torah anew. Every generation, and every person within every generation, must find the thread of Torah that calls to them and make it their own. There is a teaching that each of us must feel that we stood at Sinai, and received the law. We have as much right to claim and interpret this text as our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
There are many people here today who have just become, or who are about to become, B’nei Mitzvah. Some of you are about to turn thirteen, and others became adult B’nei Mitzvah in recent years. At thirteen, we take on the yoke of Torah. And that is not just about coming into greater responsibility as a young adult. It is also about taking one’s place in the world as a Jew. But our religious path lasts for the rest of our lives. Those in the congregation for whom Bar or Bat Mitzvah was many decades ago have an equally strong obligation to learn, to read, to question, to fall in love with the text.
And so I encourage you all to engage in some way with our tradition. Maybe go see the new Noah movie, and then please do come discuss it with me; I’m really interested to see whether or not it will be good. Maybe check out the excellent new miniseries “the Story of the Jews” on PBS. Maybe come and check out Nosh and Drash, our adult Torah study group, which meets at 9AM on Saturdays right before services and to which people of all ages are welcome, including those of you who are newly post B’nei Mitzvah. Or maybe go and check out an old favorite book, like the Red Tent. Find something that will make the text sing for you. Engage with it. Ask questions. Get emotional. Fall in love a little bit.
Because as Jews, we are obligated to love Torah. The Torah is our heritage and our strength, and in its lessons we find the foundation of our lives. As we say in our prayers at the end of the Torah service, “it is a tree of life.” Like a tree, it is ever growing, ever changing, shedding and sprouting new leaves, but also like a tree, its trunk and its roots stand firm, anchoring us into the earth and into our past.
I would like to leave you with one final thought from the great Medieval Rabbi the Ramban. According to the Ramban, tsa’arat, the disease from Tazria and Metzora, is an affliction of spiritual shortfall, and the way to purify oneself is through the use of two birds, one symbolizing a life of good deeds and the other representing the death that comes through evil. The purification process teaches us that we always have the power to choose, to connect with the things that bring life meaning. And as each of we go about choosing every day, I hope that we will find in Torah a guide that will make our steps that much easier.
There is a beautiful series up right now on New Voices, a blog for Jewish college students to share their experiences and life lessons. In this series, writer Jourdan Stein speaks movingly of her struggles with anorexia, and how she began the long road to recovery, through the help of the rituals and community of Shabbat (Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here). Reading her words, my heart swelled with emotion, and I remembered all over again why I do this work.
Our lives, are full of challenges, every last one of us. We are none of us whole, none of us so perfectly together and self-sufficient that we can undertake the incredible challenge of a life worth living all by ourselves. At its very best, Judaism is about community, about helping those who are broken to find healing and unconditional love, about creating a system of ritual and obligation that serves as a prop when we are too weak to go on unaided.
And it is so incredibly important that when we do this work, we do it well. That when we Jews reach out to other Jews, that we do it from a place of selflessness and compassion. Because Judaism has the power to help save lives. And if we cut that message off, if we cloak it in self-righteousness and pettiness and exclusivity, we have done those who might benefit from the beauty and meaning of the Covenant a grave disservice.