Thursday, April 26, 2012

Parshiyyot Tazria-Metzora: On Looking Deeply

An old Yiddish joke tells of a Jewish immigrant to America who gets sick; his American-born son takes him to the doctor. The doctor examines him and says: “It’s a virus.” The son reports back to his father, in Yiddish, “He says it’s caused by ‘a virus’.” The father looks at the son and repeats quizzically: “Averus? [Yiddish for ‘sins’] -- I already knew that.”

In this joke, the father reveals an ancient perspective on illness: that physical maladies are a reflection of internal, spiritual problems. The rabbis explain the central issue in this week’s parshiyyot, tzara’at -- an on-the-surface ailment that can afflict one’s skin as well as one’s clothing and one’s home – in a similar way. Based on biblical clues like Miriam’s experience of tzara’at as a punishment for her slander of Moshe, the rabbis say that tzara’at is caused by sin – in particular, lashon hara¸ ill speech.

At work here is an understanding of sickness quite different from the Western medical model which generally focuses only on the physical aspects of a sickness. The sick person in these parshiyyot does not go to a doctor to be healed, but to a priest. Physical illness, says the Torah, may be a symptom of spiritual illness. Similarly, when we pray for a sick person, we pray for refu’at hanefesh verefu’at haguf, “healing of the soul and healing of the body.” The Torah takes a holistic approach, asserting the essential connectedness of body and soul.

It is a matter of looking beneath the surface. We tend to be very concrete in our thinking, seeing only the physical side of things. But, as the Netivot Shalom points out, it is the job of the priest to look “deeply;” he checks whether the skin-rash has penetrated the surface, is amok, “deep,” whether it is merely a physical rash, or rather a sign of some deeper internal malady.

Learning to look deeply, to see beyond the concrete, is what the Torah project is all about, according to many Hasidic masters. There is a famous midrash, cited by Rashi, that says that the reason the homes in the land of Israel were subject to tzara’at is so that the Israelites would knock them down and discover the treasures the Amorites had hidden within the walls. One Hasidic interpretation (Kedushat Levi) reads these treasures as our own internal sparks, caught inside our physical walls. External tzara’at may be a signpost of some internal trouble, but it may also be a sign that the true treasures are internal, that it is time to break down those external barriers and find what is inside.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Warsaw ghetto rebbe, wrote, before the war, a book called bnei machsahavah tovah (recently translated as “Conscious Community”) in which he outlines a strategy for training one’s mind to perceive God in the universe. What you see with your plain eyes, he says, is merely the outer form; one can learn to perceive the inner being of things, to feel God’s constant presence in the world.

This week we celebrate Yom HaAtzmau’t, Israel Independence Day. Such a miraculous occurrence as the existence of the State of Israel is a physical signpost pointing us to the existence of a deeper reality. May we learn to look deeply, like the priest, and see the treasures that lie beneath.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Parashat Shmini: Some Post-Passover Thoughts

It’s Parashat Shmini, the parsha of the “eighth day,” the day after the 7 days of miluim, of practicing the erection and consecration of the Tabernacle. This is the day when all the lessons learned actually come into practice.

And it feels like the eighth day, in terms of holidays. We’ve had 7 (okay, 8, but it should have been 7) days of Passover. And now is the eighth day, when we put all those lessons into practice. What do we take with us from Passover into life?

As if to answer this question, we are immediately confronted, post-Passover, with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We go from a celebration of redemption to a remembering of tragedy and suffering. What is the relationship between these two?

They are both practices of memory. We have 6 zechirot, 6 acts of memory we are commanded to do (see your siddur for a complete list), and these are 2 of them: remember that you left Egypt and remember the terrible things Amalek did to you. Remember that there is redemption in the world and remember that there is cruelty in the world.

The two are necessarily linked. Remembering the Holocaust is a difficult thing. One can easily fall into the pit of despair with such memories. One begins to feel that the world is essentially an evil place where cruel things have happened and are still happening at this very moment. How can we bear such thoughts, such memories? As a people, how do we avoid a descent into hopelessness?

We can only face such memories fortified with the lessons of Passover, the holiday of hope. Passover teaches that there is ultimate redemption, that one must hold firmly to the belief that the world is moving in the right direction. Leaving Egypt does happen for those who are in straits.

But remembering our exodus from Egypt is not enough. If we did only that, we would be complacent, content in our sense of having already been redeemed. Our obligation is also to remember Amalek in the world, to remember that there still is cruelty and along with this memory, comes the obligation to erase its presence, to work at the eradication of evil from the world.

Immersed in a sense of evil in the world we could not fight it. It would overwhelm us. One cannot save a drowning person unless one is able to swim securely oneself. And so, we arm ourselves for the fight with the tools garnered in our Passover celebration – the faith in the ultimate triumph of good, in the possibility of redemption.

This is the eighth day, the day we take the memory of redemption to help us confront the memory of tragedy and cruelty.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More on Passover: On Children and Cleaning

Passover is a time for questions. Here are two I have been pondering. Please add your thoughts in the comment section below.

On Children:
Children stand at the center of this holiday. The Torah says vehigadeta levinkha. “And you shall tell your child” the story of our exodus from Egypt. It is on this basis that we have a seder and a haggadah, a book of “teling” to begin with --- for the children. But why? Why are children so central to this holiday of freedom?

A few thoughts:
1) Perhaps telling the story to our children means learning to hear and tell the story in the way that children do – with wonder, excitement, and a no-bounds sense of identification. Children know what it means to see yourself “as if” you left Egypt. They play those kinds of imaginary games all the time. We begin the Seder with questions to encourage not just the children to ask but also ourselves to ask, to look with wonder at what is new and different, to be curious and engaged like a child.

2) The holiday of Passover is about both children – the future – and also the past – retelling our national history. The point of the holiday is to preserve this link between past and future. Doing so embeds each of us in a chain, makes us and our children a part of a larger, eternal network stretching backward and forward in time. And, in so doing, we do attain a kind of freedom, a freedom from mortality: we escape our individual straits, the confines of our short individual lives.

3) The holiday is also a holiday of hope. Think of the contrast between Tisha b’Av and Passover. On Tisha b’Av we mourn the sad events of our past. On Passover we assert with great clarity that redemption happens, that difficult times always do eventually come to an end. It is this climate of faith and hope that is an essential backdrop for raising and educating children. Passover is a holiday of education because it is a holiday of hope. Children are the future; they are themselves signs of hope, like the spring rebirth after the winter sleep. To face the life that awaits them, we need to fortify them with hope and faith in the possibility of redemption.

On Cleaning:
What is the connection between cleaning and Passover, between the act of ridding ourselves of all our hametz and the process of achieving freedom and redemption? There is something about freedom, something about redemption that requires us to remove certain obstacles. What are these obstacles?

The puffiness of hametz has been traditionally connected to the puffiness of the ego, the constant human pursuit of honor, and certainly such preoccupations are a kind of enslavement, an obstacle to both freedom and redemption.

But the obstacle that strikes me most clearly this year is fear. We cannot be ourselves and play the role we are meant to play in the world if we have fear – fear of physical pain or harm, fear of evil-doers, fear of new things, fear of intimacy, fear of social disapproval or embarrassment. Fear keeps us preoccupied with the “what if” instead of focusing on the present moment of connection and holiness. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Seder night is designated as a leyl shimurim, a “night of guarding,” of divine protection. For one night, we imagine what it is like to shed these fears like bread crumbs and feel the possibility of a bold freedom.