Tazria Metsora 5781

Tazria Metsora 5781

Tazria-Metsora 5781

Lauren Tuchman


This week’s parsha, Tazria-Metsora is both incredibly timely and deeply complex. Now that the Kohenim have been ordained, their functions are beginning to be outlined. The Book of Leviticus is arguably the Torah’s most complex and least understood book, given that it is largely concerned with ritual actions and the functions of the priests.


We are introduced this week to one of the central concerns in Leviticus—issues of tuma’ah and taharah. Tuma’ah and tahara are ritual concepts that are not easily translatable. They are most often translated as pure (tahara) and impure (tuma’ah). The connotations of ideas of purity in the English language, combined with how those notions have continued to evolve culturally in deeply harmful, marginalizing ways makes understanding this ancient idea quite difficult. We are introduced to this idea in two distinct ways in our parshiyot—through the ritual process after a woman gives birth, and through the process that occurs if a person or house has contracted Tzara’at, a skin condition inaccurately but all too commonly translated as leprosy. We don’t know what Tzara’at was. Many traditional commentators have taught that a person contracted tzara’at owing to gossip, which lead to a significant conversation about lashon harah, or negative speech. One of the most prominent teachers in this arena was the Chofetz Chaim. In recent years, a discussion in Jewish Feminist circles has arisen around lashon harah and how the traditional ideas of what is considered negative speech are at best incomplete and ought to be open for continued evolution.


Our parshiyot this week also point to the challenges that we have all become intimately familiar with—issues of quarantining, diagnosis, treatment, isolation and reentry. How long does a person who has contracted tzara’at need to remain outside the camp in the Torah’s words? Though the Torah’s language is dry and technical at best, the text is grappling with an issue our world has been facing for the better part of a year, with all of the inequities and challenges present. The priest was, in a sense, the ritual/medical expert, and it was he who determined whether a given individual was infected or had recovered.


For many years reading these parshiyot, I would gloss over the minutia, taking comfort in the spiritual explanations. Tzara’at occurs when we are out of alignment with The Divine, it is a matter of spiritual significance and not necessarily one of physical and tangible stigma. In light of COVID-19 and the trauma we are all holding, those readings ring hollow at best and feel utterly out of touch with the raw human experience of this year at worst. This is yet another example of what I have come to internalize this year—there is just so much of human experience we do not fully understand until we’ve lived it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t always strengthen and stretch our empathy muscles and strive to understand what is beyond our own spheres. What it does mean is that there is a difference between understanding something intellectually and knowing it viscerally. It becomes part of our embodied experiences and lives within us always.


It is easy to read a text like this and feel that it is yet another example of the ways in which the Torah is not aligned with our experiences and lives today. That was then, this is now. The very idea of priests assuming any degree of medical expertise, for example, feels absolutely absurd. Yet, as was mentioned in a recent article on clergy burnout, the spiritual toll of this year is intense, multifaceted and long-term. Today’s rabbis, priests, ministers, cantors and others aren’t making ritual or medical determinations, but are bearing the burdens of conducting multiple funerals a week, holding the needs of traumatized communities all the while their primary and secondary trauma goes unacknowledged and increases, and are making painfully difficult decisions about reopening, capacity and who can enter the sacred sanctuary of the synagogue or other house of worship and for what purpose.


We are not calling out “unclean, unclean!” to our neighborhoods as is noted in the Torah. Yet, we are taking necessary and crucially important safety precautions to ensure that we don’t spread this terrible, deadly virus. And too many of us are not heeding these precautions, which is making the pandemic that much harder to come out of. Some of us are experiencing increasing freedom, able to safely gather. Others have yet to gain access to the vaccine. Some of us are podded with people who hold stricter interpretations of safety than we do. Others of us are struggling to communicate how important, how real this virus is, even after a year of deadly pandemic. We are all faced with the very ancient problem of plague and how to contain and stop it.


Our Torah’s context is quite removed from our contemporary one. Yet, the multifaceted ethical and ritual challenges it presents are utterly contemporaneous with our lived experience. We can take much from this—about what to do, about what not to do, about how to mitigate risk and cause the least amount of harm, and also how to call the tradition into a richer understanding of equity, safety and holiness.

Changing Ourselves To Change The World

This essay first appeared in Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi
Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.


One of the central motifs in the Pesach seder is our journey from degradation to praise, from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom. We are now b’midbar, in the wilderness, making our way to Sinai, to covenant and to radical collectivity. We were all at Sinai, every Jewish soul past, present and future, beyond the limitations of time and space to receive Torah. We heard the aleph in anochi—I—all together and separately in a way we could understand. This is why, as we learn repeatedly in rabbinic tradition, the Torah has seventy faces, infinite interpretive possibilities. G-d desires all of us to receive Torah, to be met by Torah and to be in relationship with these sacred instructions, all the while knowing that our relationships with that instruction—Torah in its broadest definition—are as varied as we are.

This sounds quite lofty and abstract—being met by The Devine? Radical relationship? How are we, how am I, supposed to live that out if I am someone who has been cast aside, wounded by that Torah that I am told is a Torat Chayyim—a life-giving Torah? In a world in which the examples of religious leaders misusing, abusing, and weaponizing Torah against those who are marginalized is legion and unfortunately always growing or so it seems, thinking about allyship as a spiritual practice rings hollow. Knowing just how profound alienation from religious community is for folks who have been and are now marginalized and knowing my own human limitations, how do I live out this aspirational practice authentically?


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe in his book Changing the World from the Inside Out challenges us to encounter the self through deeply-rooted Jewish spiritual and ethical practice as a means of building a resilient inner core, which anchors us in a profoundly uncertain and destabilizing world. We cannot change the world, Rabbi Jaffe claims, if we aren’t working on internal change.

Too often, allyship becomes performative—a title we ascribe to ourselves and not a posture of profound humility we earn over time through authentic partnership, radical listening and embracing the notion, which is anathema in a Western cultural context utterly obsessed with knowledge gathering and action that we in fact don’t know everything. We have so much to learn from others we too often ignore because, though we may not admit this to ourselves, we fall into the trap of assuming that our educational attainments, or class, or our race, or our ability status allows us to have an objective view on what others need, those who are “less fortunate”. They don’t have all of the information they need to make impactful decisions for their lives and communities. Radical listening and accepting just how little we know allows us to turn this notion on its head. We are aware that we hold a piece of the tapestry of the human experience. We also know that ours is not the finishing piece of the puzzle. So much Torah has yet to be revealed to us. Or, perhaps, G-d is desperately trying to make known to us through encounters and events in our lives that Torah which we refuse to uncover because it shakes us, challenges us, asks us to let go of biases we may desperately wish we didn’t hold because we are good people after all. I believe that we have unfortunately ascribed a moral judgement to the inevitability of holding unconscious negative bias. We have all grown up in cultural contexts that had imbedded within them ideas about people of all sorts. Messaging that we receive is so subconscious that it takes years of conscious unlearning and relearning to rewire our neural pathways. Spiritual practice is not about the destination. Though we are heading towards a mountaintop moment, ours is a spirituality rooted in the sanctification of the everyday. As we unlearn, we re-learn. None of us is free of unconscious negative bias. Our task as spiritual practitioners are to deepen our inner awareness so that we show up with the most authenticity we can in our external reality.

I fear that we have become so focused on wokeness, on knowing the right language, reading the right books, hearing the right speakers that we are neglecting the reality that we are constantly a work in progress. G-d is infinite, we are finite. If we don’t allow ourselves to learn not merely to learn but also to put our learning into action, we will forever be caught in the self-defeating trap of fearing doing the wrong thing so much that we become frozen, unable to act at all.

With gentleness and compassion, Rabbi Jaffe invites us to explore our growing edges through Mussar and the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A particularly impactful piece of his work for me is his teachings about bitachon—trust. There is no doubt that bitachon is a tough bridge to cross. Social change and good allyship is about action, about using my voice, my resources to stand alongside communities who are too often silenced. Isn’t bitachon a passive act? In fact, bitachon is precisely the opposite. Trusting that I hold what is mine to hold and that I am able to be in radical collaborative relationship with others allows me to remember, always, that I am part of that which is greater than myself. Allyship is not about the ego or escapism. Rather, it is about doing my own work through daily cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting or another spiritual discipline so that I can show up most humbly in my external work. If my internal reality is consumed by a ceaseless need for self-gratification, I am stuck in an avdut consciousness. I have not made that journey as we are invited to during the seder from narrowness to expansiveness. I know both from personal experience and from the experiences of others that those who are not working on themselves but are seeking some external validation through allyship are some of the greatest impediments to meaningful social transformation. Human beings are not revolution objects, not canvases on which we thrust our baggage. If I am to be an ally in the deepest sense, I must never forget that I, being created in the Image of G-d am radically meeting another being created in G-d’s image, as inherently beloved as I am. Giving myself space to grow, to try something and not succeed, to learn from my mistakes allows the spiritual practice of allyship to be made that much more manifest. As the Psalmist teaches in Psalms 16:8, I keep the Divine before me, always. It is not upon me, as we learn in Perkei Avot to complete the work, but I am neither free to desist from it. Just as Shabbat is a container for the world as it should be, allowing us to taste a moment of redemption each week, so, too, is allyship a sacred container, allowing us to radically encounter the other and the self, remembering, always, that we are all interconnected one with another.


Coming Close To God: A Reflection on Pesachim 98

A version of this piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s daf yomi page of the day Talmud project.


On today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a continuing discussion about when, how and by whom the Passover sacrifice must be brought. What happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for sacrifices, but can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice? We learn in a Mishnah the following:

“In the case of a Paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings, such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was separated for which offering, all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice, meaning that he must purchase one of each type of sacrifice that was intermingled at the value of the most expensive animal in the group. And he loses the difference from his own pocket. Not all the offerings were as expensive as the most valuable animal in the group, yet he must purchase an animal for each type of offering for the value of the most expensive animal in the group.”

Written centuries after the destruction of the Temple, which was the focal point for animal sacrifice, the rabbis in our Mishnah and the Gemara which follows it are very committed to understanding and living out, in a limited fashion, the sacrificial system. Why? To this day in traditional daily morning liturgy, one can find a series of Biblical and Talmudic references to the sacrifices offered daily and on holidays. Though none of us are making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, we learn and study the sacrifices and their surrounding laws as a remembrance of what once was. For those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of studying the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable. Wasn’t the entire point of the Talmud that the rabbis wanted to radically remake and reshape Torah law for an entirely new, portable, diasporic context, decentering the Temple entirely? And what are we to make of the passage which immediately follows our Mishnah?

“If a Paschal lamb was intermingled with firstborn animals, Rabbi Shimon says: If those whose offerings became mixed together were groups of priests, they may eat all of the animals on Passover night. This is because priests are permitted to eat the meat of a firstborn animal, and the slaughter and other services for a firstborn animal are the same as those for a Paschal lamb. The attending priests should state that they intend to sacrifice as a Paschal lamb whichever animal is the Paschal lamb and to sacrifice as a firstborn animal whichever animal is a firstborn.”

The rabbis here are quite careful to make determinations about how to designate and consume various mixed or intermingled animal sacrifices. Though there is not a consensus on this point—Rabbi Shimon disagrees with the Gemara’s reasoning—it is clear that the rabbis are taking great pains to preserve the memory of a system which, though not present for them in any sense, would one day be restored.

At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation which concludes traditionally with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days.

The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet, the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call Rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old.

We, too, are living at a time of tremendous global and communal change. COVID has forced us to ask questions we may never have imagined. Can ten Jews constitute a minyan on Zoom? What about fulfilling mitzvot like hearing the Megillah on Purim which we just observed yesterday? What will remain with us when we return, bimheirah b’yameinu—speedily and in our days—to in-person Jewish life and what will be dropped? What might we study and preserve for future generations? Are their pieces of how we used to pray and practice that may never return?

As we continue to navigate our new normal, remembering and studying the old as we embrace the new, may we take inspiration from our rabbis’ careful study, explication and questioning of what was and is no longer.

The Importance of Hallel on Passover A Reflection on Pesachim 95

This piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi page of the day Talmud project.


Today’s daf opens with a Mishnah. “MISHNA: What is the difference between the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ and the Paschal lamb offered on the second Pesaḥ? On the first Pesaḥ, at the time of slaughtering the Paschal lamb, it is prohibited to own leavened bread due to the prohibitions: It shall not be seen, and: It shall not be found. And on the second Pesaḥ it is permissible for one to have both leavened bread and matza with him in the house. Another difference is that the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ requires the recitation of hallel as it is eaten and the second does not require the recitation of hallel as it is eaten. However, they are the same in that the Paschal lambs sacrificed on both the first and second Pesaḥ require the recitation of hallel as they are prepared, i.e., as they are slaughtered, and they are both eaten roasted with matza and bitter herbs, and they override Shabbat in that they may be slaughtered, and their blood sprinkled even on Shabbat.”

This Mishnah outlines the differences between the Paskal offering that is brought for the first Pesach E.G., on the 14th of Nissan and the second Pesach a month later on the 14th of Iyyar. We’ve discussed Pesach Sheni or second Passover on previous dapim. Pesach Sheni is, today, a minor holiday but was initially instituted in the Book of Numbers as a means for men who were not ritually able to bring the Paskal sacrifice at its proper time the opportunity to do so. Today, some have the custom to eat matza in honor of the day and to refrain from saying Tachanun, which are supplicatory prayers found in the Shacharit (morning) and Mincha (afternoon) weekday services. There has also been a process of making the day more spiritually meaningful, by talking about the importance of second chances. Missing the opportunity to bring the Paskal sacrifice does not mean that a person cannot bring it a month later.


Amongst the similarities and differences between these two offerings the Mishnah outlines is that while both sacrifices require the recitation of Hallel—Psalms of praise—as they are being slaughtered, one only recites Hallel while eating if one brought the Paskal sacrifice in Nissan. To this day, we recite Hallel at the seder. Part of it is recited prior to the meal and the majority of it is recited after the Birkat HaMazon, blessing after the meal.

Hallel is one of my favorite Jewish liturgical and ritual moments. During this pandemic year, when communal singing became impossible and gathering at all incredibly hard, I have reminisced fondly about the many holidays I have spent in Jewish spaces that had a deep and abiding love for communal singing. Hallel was the absolute pinnacle of that. The root for the word Hallel relates to praise, though the Psalms that make up Hallel—Psalms 113-118—actually incapsulate a wide human emotional spectrum.


In previous years, I’d often quickly gloss over those parts of Hallel that hit a more somber tone. This year, however, they have come alive for me in a very deeply resonant way. Thinking about what it must have been like, experientially, to say Hallel as one was consuming their Paskal sacrifice, as part of the larger project of reliving the liberation that came through the Exodus from Egypt inspires me to enter the emotional complexity Hallel affords me in a more authentic way. Liberation came for B’nai Yisrael when we left Egypt, yes, but we also then had to learn how to be in the world as free people, receiving a covenant that bound us to The Divine and one another. No sooner do we leave Egypt, in fact, than we begin to lose faith that that choice was a wise one. The spiritual life is not merely about the joys and transcendent moments. For me, it is as much about the sorrows, sadness and rawness of being human. Perhaps that is why the rabbis instituted the recitation of Hallel twice for the first Pesach but only once for the 2nd. Those bringing the second Pesach already endured a sense of spiritual separation, making their praise even sweeter.

The Plurality of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu 5780

This piece originally appeared on SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

Nachamu Nachamu ami, “comfort, comfort my people,”— the opening words of the Haftorah from the book of Isaiah, which we will read this Shabbat, ring particularly poignant this year. What does it mean for us to move from a period of mourning, fasting, and solemnity into a prolonged period of communal consolation?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the profound wisdom of our Jewish calendrical cycle. We are not a linear people—our years are cyclical and, as we move through the cycle, our tradition asks us to embody the specific mood or energy of each moment, year after year, even as we ourselves are in a constant state of flux. For many years, when the Three Weeks came around, I wondered how I would find meaning in this time. Connecting viscerally to the Chorban—destruction of the 2 Temples—was not something to which I had an immediate or easy access point. I did always believe deeply in the utility and importance of collective mourning, but on some level it felt hollow. That is, until this year.

As these long pandemic months continue, as the losses—tangible and ambiguous alike—continue to pile up, as many of us feel weighed down by past and present grieving, it feels like our holy tradition is calling out to us, crying alongside us. As we emerge from the 9 days into Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, we are being reminded, even if just in a whisper, that we can move on. It will take seven weeks of comforting haftorot to make up for the three haftorot of rebuke, but we will be able to rebuild and enter a new year.

In Masechet Taanit 29B-30B, there is an extended discussion about how one ought to prepare for and observe Tisha b’Av. Numerous Tannaitic opinions are recorded pertaining to many aspects of the day itself and the days which precede and follow. The text asks: Should the mourning of the 9 days actually last for all of Av or just during the week in which Tisha b’Av falls? If Tisha b’Av falls on a Sunday, is there even a week of mourning before? When can a person do their laundry? What if they only have one garment and Tisha b’Av falls on Friday—can they wash their garment for the honor of Shabbat? And what about Torah study? Are you allowed to learn Torah? Maybe you can only learn the sections you’re familiar with. How ought we commemorate this time?

I am profoundly moved by the way in which the rabbis engage in this back-and-forth. After the Chorban, the Talmudic project began in earnest in Yavneh because the rabbis understood that we were living in a radically altered world and wanted desperately for our traditions to survive. We are heirs to their ingenuity. As I learned this sugya, I kept coming back to the way in which the rabbis were working out for themselves and future generations just how we would commemorate Tisha b’Av specifically and the Chorban broadly. Writing hundreds of years after that trauma, there was no consensus. To me, this lack of consensus points to the very human reality that the way we grieve and mourn is radically individual. Some of us need those safe containers to hold the pain. Our tradition masterfully created a staged process for mourning the deaths of dear ones for that reason. We move from Shiva to Shloshim to observing the yartzeit annually because we know that even as time progresses, we need a ritualized way to return to the loss and re-emerge into the world again and again, year after year.

Just as our rabbis were not of one mind about how to commemorate the loss of the Temples in Yerushalayim—just how much mourning and for how long is too much?—I know I am wrestling with a plurality of thoughts and feelings about my own grieving during this time. For those of us in an American cultural context, ours is a culture which is better at bottling up emotion and staying as far from death and pain as possible. Where’s the space for the rawness, the realness, the ambiguity of the losses some of us experienced and the real tangibility of others? May the wisdom of our rabbis and our calendar provide us with some solace and grounding in this moment of radical crash. May the fluidity with which the rabbis have an honest back-and-forth about how to commemorate this time provide us with fodder for how we mark our own time of trial and calamity.

Bahaalotekha 5780

Our parsha or Torah portion this week is parashat Bahaalotekha, the third parsha in Sefer Bamidbar or the book of Numbers. We are introduced to Pesach Sheni or Second Passover in this parsha, which was instituted upon request of some Israelites who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at its official or fixed time—on the 14th of Nisan at twilight. The stated reason was on account of them being what is called Tumaat Meit in Hebrew or imperfectly translated, ritually impure due to recent contact with a corpse. Their ritual status made it impossible for them to offer the Passover sacrifice in Nisan, but all was not lost. A month later, on the 14th of Iyyar, they were able to offer the Passover sacrifice. Today, when we no longer offer sacrifices, Pesach Sheni has been understood in a variety of ways.

In some Chasidic thought, Pesach Sheni has come to represent the idea of spiritual second chances. Teshuvah, or turning and returning is a practice that is available to us all year long, not only on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach Sheni is another opportunity for us to right what has been wrong, to return to a better path, to have an opportunity to make up something we may have missed. It has become customary in some communities to hold a model seder on Pesach Sheni—indeed, I had the joy of participating in one myself this year—following the structure but of course omitting all of the elements that are only applicable on Pesach itself. Some folks also will eat a bit of matza. Because Pesach Sheni falls during the Omer period, which traditionally is a period of semi-mourning, it also allows for a bit of a celebratory respite.

The Torah states that those who may offer the Passover sacrifice on Pesach Sheni also include those who were on a long journey in Nisan and unable to make the sacrifice. This notion of being on a long journey has also been transformed and made into something of a metaphor.

Much ink has been spilled regarding this challenging and difficult time on a local, national and global scale. Many of us feel as though we have been on a journey whose beginning we barely remember and whose end we cannot imagine. The raw, visceral, unavoidable and inescapable truths of the foundation of America which black, indigenous folks and other people of color have known intimately for centuries are finally, or so it seems, being seen by more white folks than ever before. Many are cautiously optimistic, noting that something about this moment is different but worried that this will not last, as far too many past experiences have amply demonstrated.  We are collectively journeying but importantly, we are each also on an intensely individual journey. In this time of national and global reckoning, it is our responsibility to continue on our inward journeys because without an honest and often times difficult soul-accounting, we cannot show up as our full and authentic selves in the work externally which urgently needs doing and needs all of us. We each have an important role to play. This is a long haul, a marathon and not a sprint. We may feel shame in this moment, realizing that we in fact have had many chances to choose to do and act differently and we did not avail ourselves of those opportunities.

Pesach Sheni was instituted so that those who were far away could make the sacrifice. Our Torah understands that even with one’s best efforts to get it done on time, some folks are not able to. There is something important also about this opportunity for a do-over only for Pesach, not for any other holiday. Pesach is a foundational event for the Jewish people, as we journeyed out of slavery and into freedom or, as the Haggadah also describes, from degradation to praise. Sefer Shemot/the book of Exodus notes that we cried out because of our oppression. Our cries were finally heard, but after many centuries of enslavement, degradation and loss of dignity and autonomy.

And in our own day, our siblings cry out for justice, for life, for breath after too many centuries of injustice. We have had many opportunities. Many of us have been close, proximate and others have not been. Hashem knows our innermost thoughts, yearnings and feelings of shame. It is never too late to do important work, our parsha is teaching us. If not now, as Hillel taught, when? May our journeys guide us to committing to make this world a true dwelling place for the Divine Presence/Shechinah. May we co-create a world of beauty and abundance, where all may thrive and feel utterly at home in their bodies.

Behar 5780

This week marks the tenth Shabbat since I have been in shul, davening with a minyan. Each Shabbat morning as I arise, put on my tallit and prepare to pray the morning or Shacharit service, I cannot but feel the absence of friends, the silence without melodious harmonization, and the void left without a physical community to be amongst. This is the second Shabbat out of those ten Shabbatot during which we liturgically complete the reading of one of the five books of the Torah. This week, we read the two final parshiyot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Behar and Bechukotai. Ordinarily, when the Torah is read with a minyan of ten adult Jews present, at the conclusion of a book of the Torah, the entire congregation rises if able to do so and proclaims together, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. We know that in the fullness of time, a year will elapse, and we will return once more to Leviticus, and we wish each other and ourselves well on our continuing journey through Torah and life itself.

The Jewish tradition is one deeply bound to time, but not in a Western, linear fashion. Instead, ours is a tradition of cycles. Seven is a key number for us in organizing these temporal cycles. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, which is the vast majority of Parashat Behar, the first of our two Torah portions this week is a prime example of our Torah’s concern. We learn first about the Shmita or sabbatical year. Every seven years, land is to lie fallow, uncultivated, unharvested. The prior six years the land is worked as it typically would be and, knowing that the Shmita year was coming, it is expected that society is organized in such a manner that no one is left behind in the seventh year. Animals and human beings are able to sustain themselves and enjoy the rest afforded to them by this time.

The fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, is known as the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original occupants. It ought to be mentioned here that even as such land returns to its original inhabitants, G-d makes clear to human beings that land is, in fact, not ours at all—we are merely tenants upon it. All land ultimately belongs to G-d.

As we are reading about the forty-nine years leading to the Yovel, we are simultaneously in the midst of counting the Omer, a practice that we do daily during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.  On the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we would bring our first fruits, the first results of our post-Pesach wheat harvest. We rest on this day out of abundant gratitude for our produce, and with each day’s counting of the Omer leading us to this time, we are deeply conscious of where we are in this cycle, we pray will have an abundant end.

So, too, we count the years until the Yovel, marking the Shmita year with each cycle as we go, praying for years of bounty and plenty. The Torah instructs that when we are resting, we are to ensure that all members of society can engage in this rest. And, so too, when the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one of them, their rest and joy is meant to be felt by and available to all.

And so, I return to my Shabbatot in this time. I think often as I engage in my own Shabbat practice of the privileges inherent in being able to remain sheltered in place, with access to plenty of wholesome, nourishing food, a spacious yard to enjoy, and enough space so as not to feel too cooped up. With each passing Shabbat, I mark the time since I was with in-person community. I grieve that loss, and yet, I know deeply how truly lucky I am. The relative stability and security I presently feel should be available to all.

The Torah this week reminds me starkly yet again that the social safety net it envisions, a system of laws and practices rooted in the idea that all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine is, at best, profoundly broken in our own society. We express gratitude for essential workers and first responders, calling them heroes. Many are showing the very best of humanity through how they are relating to those of us who are engaged day in and day out doing tasks which we would be hard-pressed to function without—and, if we’re honest with ourselves—hard-pressed to do ourselves. Yet, too many express nothing more than surface-level gratitude and are angry when a delivery is delayed. I want my package and I want it now. Workers going without essential PPE? Too many of us are more concerned with expediency than with protecting the health and safety of those delivering our longed-for quarantine goods.

In a society steeped in instant gratification, the notion of interdependence, that we are each ultimately responsible for and bound up with one another is foreign, anathema.

Let us heed our parsha’s radical calls for social responsibility and restructuring as we imagine and, G-d willing, co-create a more abundant world post-COVID. Just as our Torah instructs us to ensure that the needs of all are met before the Shmita year, let us work to reimagine a society that considers meeting basic human needs as a given and not an inconvenience. Just as we honor the cycles of time, experiencing periods of rest and labor, let us work ceaselessly to ensure that the rest our Torah calls us to engage in is something that all can enjoy and not merely a privileged few.

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

Baalotecha 5779

Our parsha this week is Behaalotecha, the third parsha in the Book of Numbers. We are introduced this week to the second Passover or Pesach Sheni which falls on the 14th of Iyyar, exactly one month after Passover. Pesach Sheni allowed those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time the chance to do so. Much has been made of this second chance holiday, which is still observed today in some circles. Why maintain this holiday at all without a Temple? How do we turn something that was all about making up for a very important missed sacrifice into something relevant to our lives?
Much has been made of the spiritual significance of second chances. Just as Pesach Sheni was instituted to allow those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time—the 14th of Nisan—the chance to do so, we, too, often find ourselves wishing we had a second chance at any number of things. How many of us spend precious time, energy and brain space ruminating about events in our past, replaying sequences of events in our heads, as if by doing so, a different outcome will emerge? So many of us yearn to change the past, to do things differently, all of those would-haves and should-haves consuming so much of our daily energy and drive. We know, intuitively and subconsciously, that we cannot change the past, and that the present moment is all we have and yet, we continue our fruitless quest. Pesach Sheni offers us a container within which we can reflect upon those opportunities we missed; those things we wish we’d done differently. Our tradition understands Pesach Sheni to have been instituted on behalf of those on a journey and unable to offer the Passover sacrifice as well as those in a state of ritual impurity. Just as those states are temporal and not definite, so, too, do our lives and circumstances constantly change and shift. This is indeed reminiscent of the famous Buddhist teaching of impermanence and non-attachment. Change is itself permanent, stasis is, often leading to a state of spiritual and emotional stuckness is to be avoided. May we utilize the spiritual container offered to us through Pesach sheni as an opportunity for reflection. In those moments of stuckness, may we remember that second chances are not as fleeting as we tend to think.

Behar 5779

Parashat Behar, our Torah reading for this week, introduces us to the Shmita year. Every seven years, Leviticus/Vayikra instructs us that the land must lie fallow—no agricultural or food production is permitted and there are a number of other restrictions put into place as well. The number seven holds great significance in Jewish tradition—we are commanded to rest on the Shabbat or the seventh day and, here, the parallel between our need as human beings to rest and the need for the land to rest is striking and profoundly countercultural. In a capitalist system which correlates human worth with human productivity, consequently deeming any human being whose body is incapable of the kind of unsustainable production our culture demands inherently dispensable, inherently unworthy and completely lacking in value, our Torah offers us a blueprint for what a radically liberatory, egalitarian system of rest and rejuvenation could look like. Recognizing that no human being, no animal, and no part of the land, upon which, our portion tells us later, we are strangers and sojourners with God, not owners outright can produce without ceasing, guidelines are put into place enabling us to shape a society in which the Shmita year is taken seriously. Yet, in the world as it is, the Shmita is an incredibly difficult mitzvah to observe. How might a commandment prohibiting food production, for instance, negatively impact those most viscerally impacted by rampant structural and social inequality? If a person cannot produce their own food, how are they supposed to sustain themselves and their families? And if they have not been able to store a year or two’s worth of food because they are living month to month, where does that leave them? In many ways, preparing, saving and storing for the future are luxuries, luxuries many in our own country do not have access to.
If we are to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to allow the land to rest, just as human beings are required to rest, we must take seriously the fact that in order to put this into practice, we are required to radically rethink and reconstitute our very social structure, a social structure which privileges some over others, and in which resource distribution and acquisition are wildly unequal. What might it look like for those of us with much to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to create a social system which allows all to survive, all to thrive? As we become intimately familiar with the reality of profound, systemic social and economic injustice through our work in the world, it is easy to despair of sustainable change ever coming. The status quo feels so intrenched. Yet, in this week of Behar, in this week in which we are hearing and reading the laws of the Shmita year, let us take some time to think about the actions, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential we can each take to do what tikkun/repair we are able to create a world in which all are able to thrive, a world which is truly a dwelling place for the Divine.