Thursday, April 19, 2018

Now The Shore-Lights Beckon, Yeah There's A Price For Being Free ( John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Lost Sailor")

          The Middle East was a busy place this week. Israel celebrated its 70thyear of being an independent country. Palestinians marked the day with what is known as Nakba – The Catastrophe. The leader of nearby Syria, Bashir Al Assad used chemical weapons upon his own people yet again.  England, France and the United States, despite Russian pressure to ignore Assad’s use of chemical weapons, bombed several sights as a warning that the West would not tolerate a dictator’s use of chemical weapons upon his own people. As our children watched the news, read the Tweets, I was asked why a leader would want to kill his/her own people, let alone kill them with an illegal weapon. For them, this was the first time that they paid attention enough to follow the news and ask the question. I reminded them that this was not the first time, and sadly it won’t be the last. In a recent speech to the European Parliament warned of the rising fascism with “antidemocratic and illiberal ideas, the deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom.” (NY Times Editorial Board April 18,2018). Macron didn’t mention anyone nor any country by name: not Hungary, not Poland, not Russia, not Turkey, nor any leader enthralled with strong armed dictators nor the populist movement that these types of leaders claim to represent. What seemed so fascinating was the way Macron spoke about it, an impurity that infects the soul of individuals, leaders and nations.
This week we combine two Parshiot: Tazriah and Metzorah. God tells Moshe the laws of purity and impurity as it relates to birth. God instructs Moshe about the appropriate korbanot (sacrifices) that a mother should make as she re-enters the camp. God also instructs Moshe about Tza'arat, or for lack of a good translation; leprosy. Throughout the rest of Tazria and Metzora, we are told all about Tzaarat. We are told what it is. We are told how it is diagnosed. We are told how it is treated. We are told how it spreads. We are told what to do in case it spreads. Basically, Tazriah is a type of Tza'arat, a type of skin ailment which is commonly thought of as leprosy. However this skin ailment is not treated by the resident dermatologist. Even if they had dermatologists in the Torah, we would not bring someone suffering from Tazriah to the dermatologists. Why? The skin ailment was not a symptom of any type of physical malady. Since the person with the skin ailment appears before the Priest, the Kohen, we know that the skin condition must be spiritual malady and not a physical one. Adam Ki Yiheyeh V'Or B'Saro S'Eit O Sapachat O Va'Heret V'Hayah V; Or B'Saroh L'Negah Tzara'at V'Huvah El Aharon H'Kohen O el Achad Mi'Banav Ha'KohanimIf a person will have on the sin of his flesh a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration and it will become a scaly affliction on the skin of his flesh; he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim(Lev. 13:2-3). The rest of the Parsha teaches us the appropriate protocol for treatment. The Kohen checks again to determine if that person has become ritually impure. If so, they must be sent out of the camp in order to avoid the risk of the skin ailment spreading to others. The quarantine would last for seven days. Afterwards, the Priest would check again, if there was no contamination the person was brought back into the camp, However if the contamination remained, then the quarantine would continue for another seven days. Then the process would begin all over again. We also learn that if this contamination spread to the clothes or vessels; then everything would be burned and destroyed.
In the Talmudic Tractate of Arichin, which primarily focuses upon the laws of valuations; we learn that the skin ailment is a punishment for the sins of bloodshed, false oaths, sexual immorality, pride, robbery, and selfishness (Arichin 16a). All of these physical occurrences are accompanied by a spiritual component. These occurrences all demonstrate the offender's failure to empathize with the needs of others. It is fascinating to think that in an ideal community, we are not only concerned with our own well-being. We should also be concerned about others as well. Our failure to do so leads to a spiritual sickness including: petty jealousy, alienation, and a further erosion of community and society. All of which diminish the holiness within the individual and the holiness within the community. By removing the contaminated offender from the community two positive results occur. First the welfare, integrity and holiness of the community is spared from spiritual sickness. This is the primary concern since we fear that God will cease dwelling in a community that becomes spiritually sickened or spiritually dysfunctional. The second positive result is that the contaminated offender has experienced the isolation and concern from others. This is exactly what he/she wrought upon the community with such behavior.
            Certainly we can understand that power be a source of impurity. When leaders and their political parties focus so much on obtaining power and do everything possible to remain in power; leaders, political parties, and a society’s values become corrupt. That corruption leads to cynicism which eventually destroys the purpose of power: a tool, a mechanism to help those who need help, bring relief to those in need, and bring those who are alienated and in the dark back into the light.  The Torah reminds us that our spiritual shortcomings can also affect our physical well-being.  Our psychological well-being, our spiritual well-being, and our physical well-being, according to Tazriah/Metzorah must reflect life. Just as important, we need to have life affirming rituals that we can engage in when we are confronted with things that threat our life affirming existence. Each act of kindness reaffirms the idea that freedom and democracy are the only viable means by which one can to strive towards Kedushah (holiness) and Chesed (kindness).

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

You Say It's A Living, We All Gotta Eat (Robert Hunter & Mickey Hart- "Fire On The Mountain")

The holiday of Passover has passed over and our kitchen has returned to normal. Perhaps the happiest person was our 10th-grade daughter who has been experimenting with vegetarianism. Her commitment to this additional dietary restriction created some difficulties for her during Pesach. Obviously, there was no regular pasta. Even though there is a Matza based pasta on the market, she did not like it. There was no such thing as a Kosher For Passover vege-burger. There was no Tofu on Passover as soybean (and all beans for that matter) are considered kitniyot (legumes) and we hold by that restriction during the Passover festival. She ate lots of quinoa and lots of fish, eggs and cheese. Throughout the entire week, her mother and I constantly worried about her getting enough protein in her diet. I even told her that it was time she acknowledges her rightful place atop the food chain and enjoys her mother’s chicken and brisket. While our daughter smiled at my joke, she will not be persuaded to begin eating meat. So whenever we do eat meat, we always make sure that she has a “vegetarian option. Despite the inconvenience for the one cooking and our perpetual anxiety about her protein intake, I actually admire her discipline.
This week’s Parsha is Shemini. It is comprised of three chapters. The first chapter tells us how sacrificial offering is supposed to work. While receiving instructions from Moshe, Aharon, his brother, and the High Priest, makes sacrificial offerings on behalf of the people. Following every instruction down to the minutest detail, and remaining in the highest state of spiritual purity, Aharon slaughters the animal, sprinkles the blood, and burns the animal. Once finished, Moshe and Aharon leave the Mishkan and come out to bless the people. V’yeirah Kavod Adonai El Kol Ha’Am-“And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people” (Lev 9:23). Obviously, we can see how sacrifices are supposed to work. We see how God’s pleasure is displayed and the people's response to witnessing such glory. They bow their heads. This chapter essentially explains God’s response to the sacrifices. When everything is appropriate and in the proper spirit, God accepts our approach. The second chapter concentrates much more on the priests and what happens when things are not appropriate or not conducted in the proper spirit. Aharon’s eldest sons die for their inappropriate approach toward God. Moshe reminds Aharon and his remaining sons that one must be physically and spiritually pure when offering sacrifices both on their own behalf and on B’nai Yisroel’s behalf. However, what do either of these chapters half to do with Kashrut?
The discussion of Kashrut is confined to the last chapter of the Parsha, chapter 11. In it, we read a list of animals that we are forbidden to eat. Some of which I probably would not eat even if it was kosher. However the answer to why we keep kosher is provided “For I am Adonai your God-you are to sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, and you shall not contaminate yourselves…For I am Adonai who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto; you shall be holy, for I am holy. This is the law of the animal, the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and for every creature that teems on the ground; to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten.” Kashrut is merely a physical expression of our purity. God accepts offerings of all kinds. Priests purify themselves in order to make offerings acceptable to God. What about the rest of us? What everyday activity do we engage in which allows us to demonstrate our sense of purity and our own sense of holiness?  We eat! We separate animals as acceptable for consumption and unacceptable for consumption. We separate milk from meat. We separate the time from when we eat by the time when we do not eat with a blessing. We remind ourselves every day of our own sense of holiness and our relationship to God through Kashrut.
How wonderful! Parsha Shemini teaches that we all have a means to approach God. Priests make sacrifices, and the rest of us eat. By engaging in such physical activity in a manner that consists of limits to that physical activity, we remind ourselves of our relationship with God.  We are reminded that our natural state of existence is entirely physical, only when we infuse our existence with spirituality are we able to embody the sacred. However, the object is to be able to elevate every aspect of our physical existence and infuse it with holiness, even something as physical as eating. Just like God was able to make things holy, so too, are we able to make things holy as well.

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Wade In The Water And Never Get Wet (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Doin' That Rag")

During the winter months, we encourage our son to engage in some kind of Sunday activity, preferably of the physical variety. Whether he took snowboard lessons (which he did two winters ago), or played basketball (several winter seasons ago); we didn’t really care. We just wanted him to be doing something rather than sitting around all day. Our son always enjoyed swimming; this past winter he also grew intrigued by the idea of military operations that dealt with search and rescue missions. Whether the U.S. military or TzaHaL (the Israeli Army); he liked watching and reading about this types of missions. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when he asked to sign up for swim classes that would prepare him for ultimately becoming a life guard through the Canadian Red Cross.  Because of his age, he is still not eligible to sign up for the actual Life Guard course. Undeterred, he decided to take the Pre-Life Guard courses. He completed the Bronze Star and the Bronze Medallion courses. The latter course he finished a couple of weeks before Pesach. Now, in the midst of Pesach and in the middle of his Pesach vacation, our son has been reminding me to sign him up for the next level of Pre-Life Guard courses: Bronze Cross.  When I told him to remind me after Pesach, he grew quite irritated with me. First, he pointed out that I am always reminding him of the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 29a which and the four obligations a father has in terms of raising a son. One of those obligations is teaching his son to swim (since it might save his life). Impressed that my son had actually listened, I began to answer him. However he quickly cut me off and reminded that nothing would be more appropriate than to sign him up as Pesach drew to an end and we read Shirat HaYam – the story of the Kriyat Yam Suf (the Crossing of the Reed Sea).
The Seventh Day of Pesach, we continued the narrative of the Exodus, and read of the miracle of Kriat Yam Suf (the Crossing of the Reed Sea). Already out of Egypt and now pursued by the Pharoah’s army; B’nai Yisroel finds itself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. Before them lies the Reed Sea and behind them is the Egyptian Army and it all of its chariots. These former slaves are panicked and thinking that they are about to die. Moshe, too, appears at wit’s end and, unsure of how to proceed, begins to pray on both his and the people’s behalf. VaYomer HaShem El Moshe -  God says to Moshe  Mah Titzahk Eilai Dabeir El B’nai Yisroel V’Yisauspeak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth (Ex. 14:15). Eventually, B’nai Yisroel musters enough courage and they cross the sea. Upon their successful arrival to the other side, Moshe and B’nai Yisroel break out into song praising God’s strength, love, and protection.
The Talmudic Sages in the Talmud Sotah 36a credit the great- great- grandson of Judah, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, Aaron’s brother in law, as the first one into the Sea. However, the Sea did not open when Nachshon put his foot into the water. Nor did the sea part when he was knee deep, thigh deep or waist deep into the water. Undeterred, and apparently full of a profound and simple faith in God, Nachshon continued to wade into the water. The water covered his chest, his shoulders, his neck, chin, face and soon he was completely submerged. In the moment he was to sink or float, the waters open up. B’nai Yisroel followed and they made their way across. While the Midrash doesn’t suggest that Nachshon actually swam at all, certainly he was the ultimate lifeguard, risking his life to save B’nai Yisroel from their own spiritual paralysis.
                Nachshon’s courage in the Midrash, teaches a valuable lesson about faith and freedom. No matter the difficulty, no matter the pain, sadness and grief, there is a path across the Yam Suf. That is not to say that we may not be bruised, scarred, or damaged in some way. It only means that crossing our own sea gives us an opportunity for a future. Staying back, remaining paralyzed, succumbing to our fears, guarantees no future and remaining enslaved. Indeed, freedom is all about a sense of tomorrow, the future and possibilities. How could I deny my son’s pleading and his reasoning? I signed him up just before these last days of the Pesach. I signed him up knowing that he doesn’t suffer from any spiritual paralysis. I signed him up knowing that his positive outlook is a manifestation of his deep faith in God and in the words we sang at the Seder table: Dayeinu. Whatever we have in our lives, it is good enough.
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

All Your Life, You Were Only Waiting For This Moment To Be Free (John Lennon & Paul McCartney- "Blackbird")

We have schlepped boxes from the basement to the kitchen. We have emptied our pantry of all the Chametz (all the “non-kosher for Pesach” foods and platters. We have filled the pantry with our Kosher for Pesach dishes, and cooking utensils. We set up a shelving unit to hold the kosher for Pesach food. We have closed up cabinets and drawers that hold our regular year-round kitchen stuff.  We have carried out our Chametz and “disowned” it.  Our children have finally cleaned up their rooms (some of the things they found was truly incredible). We made numerous trips to the supermarket, so much so, that I have my own reserved parking spot. We have cleaned the kitchen over and over and over again. My poor mother-in-law thought she was coming to just visit her daughter and grandchildren had been put to work by my wife. Of course, there is the yearly discussion of the menu: the Chef wants to make different dishes as she has grown bored making the same foods year in and year out. However, those of us who work as the sous chefs and actually eat the food yearn for the comfort of the same seasonal holiday foods that gets served every year.  The kitchen is about 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the house because it seems that the oven has been on all week. Yes, the Pesach preparations seem never-ending. Discussions and arguments about what is and is not Kosher for Passover and which Rabbi supports a lenient or a strict interpretation occurs constantly.   Indeed it seems very easy to get bogged down in the minutiae and the detail that we forget the purpose of this slave-like labor and preparation. 
This Shabbat marks the first day of Pesach, Zman Cheiruteinu – the Time of our Freedom, as well as being Shabbat, Yom Menucha, and a Day of Rest.  Because Pesach comes once a year and Shabbat occurs fifty-two time a year, on this particular Shabbat, Pesach tends to be our focus. We didn’t just partake of a Shabbat dinner; we participated in a Seder.  We don’t read from the weekly Torah reading, we read a special Torah reading that focuses upon the narrative of the first Passover celebration in Egypt as B’nai Yisroel was about to become a free people and leave Egypt. U’Lekachetem Agudat Eizov Utvaltem BaDam Asher BaSaf V’HiGaTem El HaMaSHKoF V’El SHTei HaMZuZoT MiN HaDaM Asher BaSaF V’ATeM Lo TeiTZu ISh MiPeTaCH BeiTo Ad  BoKeR -  You Shall take a bundle of hyssop and dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with some of the blood that is in the basin and as for you, you shall not leave the entrance of the house until morning (Ex. 12:22). At some point during that tension-filled night, B’nei Yisroel would be freed. What was the exact moment of their freedom? What minute, what hour in the night were these slaves finally freed? The text does not tell us. The text only tells us that by morning the slaves would be freed from slavery but obligated to retell the story to each generation.
                So we are obligated to tell this story to each generation. What is more, we are commanded to see ourselves as if we were actually slaves in Egypt and freed that night. Yet all we can say is that we were freed at some point during the night. At what exact time who can say? Yet each week we know exactly what time we stop. We know exactly what time we light Shabbat or Yom Tov (Festival) candles in order to usher in the Sabbath and the Chag (Festival). We know exactly when these moments begin and when these moments conclude.  Needless to say, when my son and I are sitting in Shul on Friday night, ushering in both the Sabbath and the Festival of Pesach, we will emit a large cleansing breath, knowing that our preparations are finished, and our work leading up to Zman Cheiruteinu, the Time of Our Freedom, is complete ( or as complete as it can be). I know that when my son and I walk into our home, and the Seder Table is set, the candles are glowing and my wife, daughters, and mother in law are sitting quietly for just a moment catching their collective breaths, that they are aware of this powerful moment, a moment where Shabbat and Pesach has conflated into the deepest possible understanding of what freedom is. Tt this moment, the final boxes have been put away, the preparation finished, the meal is cooked and we can now partake of freedom. Yes, we are free to sit, free to eat, drink. We are free to ask questions. We are free to offer answers. We are free to discuss and we are free to tell the story. Because we are free to do these seemingly trivial things: eat, drink, ask questions, answer, discuss, and tell stories; we understand and appreciate not only Pesach- Zman Cheiruteinu (Time of Our Freedom), but Shabbat- Yom Menucha (a Day of Rest) as well.

Peace and Chag Kasher V’Sameach,
Rav Yitz  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Come Wash The Night Time Clean (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Cassidy")

          Typically, at this time of year, we focus on cleaning our house as part of our family’s Pesach preparations. Each child is expected to go through their respective closets and drawers and begin purging, eliminating clothes that don’t fit, any trash that didn’t get into a trash can on the initial attempt, as any crumbs that may have found their way upstairs into their bedrooms. The Pesach/Spring cleaning forces each of us to simplify and lighten our footprint. Lately, we have noticed that our attention upon “cleaning house” has expanded to another house and another resident who has been engaged in house cleaning. While he probably isn’t preparing for Pesach, the President has been "cleaning house" as well. Since Purim, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico resigned, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks resigned, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohen left the White House because of his disagreement with the President over tariffs, the President’s personal aid John McEntee was fired, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired, and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was fired.  I know that we haven’t finished cleaning for Pesach. When the President commented that he was close to having the Cabinet that he has always wanted; it seems that he isn’t finished cleaning for Pesach either. Lucky for him, there is still time to for him to clean before Pesach. Yet there is a huge difference between cleaning for Pesach, and “cleaning house”.   
This week’s Parsha is Tzav. It is also Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Chag HaPesach, the Passover Holyday. Like last week’s Parsha, Parsha Tzav focuses upon Korbonot (offerings). While last week we read of God’s commanding Moshe to teach the laws of Korbonot (Offerings) to B’nei Yisroel, this week we read of God commanding Moshe to teach the laws of Korbonot (Offerings) to Aaron and his sons. The Parshah concludes with instructions for Aaron and his sons to remain outside of the camp for seven days. These are the seven days required for spiritual and to some degree, physical preparation. The Priests must remain outside of the camp because they are in the process of purifying themselves for this extremely sacred and vital position, Kohen Gadol.
Besides Moshe, the Kohen Gadol was the most vital role within Israelite society. It was the Kohen Gadol that served as a vehicle for the common person to draw closer to God. When the common person or the king needed to atone, they would bring a sacrifice to God. However, it was the Priest that had to check for blemishes. It was the priest that had to slaughter the animal in a very precise way. It was the priest that had to sprinkle the blood.  Later on, it was the priest who became the “spiritual advisor” to the king. Unlike any other position, the priesthood was based upon lineage and was promised by God to Aaron for eternity (or as long as there was a Temple). Yet as important as this was for the welfare of B’nai Yisroel’s relationship to God, the Priest was eternally reminded of the importance of humility within a leader. V’hotzi et a Hadeshen el Michutz La’Machaneh el Makom Tahor-“and he shall bring the ashes to the outside of the camp, to a pure place (Lev 6:4).” The Kohen (the Priest) is, arguably, the most important position within the community, and he has to shlep the ashes out from the Mishkan. What’s even more amazing is what the Talmudic tractate Yoma teaches. The Talmud explains that the priests were so anxious to take out the ashes that a lottery system had to be introduced to pacify all those who wanted this “honor”. Anyone could have been commanded to take out the ashes. Why the Kohanim (the Priests)? Like all other aspects of the sacrificial process, the priests’ sole concern was the Temple and everything about the Temple. No task was below the priest. No aspect of the Temple remained untouched or unaffected by the Priest. The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th-century work enumerating and explaining all 613 Mitzvot explains that Terumat HaDeshen is a positive commandment. The priest removes these ashes daily, and in doing so, he is enhancing the Mizbeach (the altar) and beautifying it to the best of his ability. Rashi adds that the priest would wear old clothes and nice his daily Priestly Vestments or his Holiday Vestments to do this type of menial work. All agree that the Kohen was never thought to be too important for such a lowly task.
So what can we learn from Parsha Tzav, and the Priest’s most menial of tasks? First, we learn just how vital it is for leadership, of any kind, to roll up its shirtsleeves and do some of the dirty work. After all, if leadership is unwilling to “to get dirty” for a greater purpose, then the purpose must not so great. Also if the leadership is unwilling “to get dirty”, why should anyone else “get dirty”? Effective leadership is not only about convincing others to act; it is about one’s observance of the same rule. No matter how important we think we are, we always should be reminded to take out the ashes. We need humility in order to remind us of where we fit in, and who we are. Possessing this humility gives us credibility when dealing with anyone. Possessing this humility reminds us of how we should treat others as well as how we wish to be treated. By participating in the preparations, by cleaning up and throwing out the garbage; we remind ourselves that Judaism is about the individual fitting into the community. Hopefully, my kids will begin to appreciate the importance of throwing out the garbage.
Peace & Chag Kasher v’ Sameach,
Rav Yitz