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Torah

Scapegoating and Sacred Self-Awareness: Questions for Acharei Mot/K’doshim

This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, contains two familiar narratives. The first is the ritual of the Scapegoat—on Yom Kippur, two goats are selected. One is sacrificed and the other is sent off to Azazel with the sins of the people upon its head (Leviticus 16:7–8). The second passage contains what we now call the “Holiness Code.” The words, “You will be holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:1–2), resonate as a powerful exhortation to find the holiness implanted within us all as we attempt to uncover God’s presence in our lives.

At face value, these two commandments appear to have very little in common. The Scapegoator seir l’Azazel— is an ancient ritual of purgation that, to our modern sensibilities, has little, if any meaning. The commandment for us to find God’s holiness within ourselves, however, resonates strongly within many who seek to understand our purpose in the world.

And yet, if we attempt to dig just a little deeper than the literal meaning of our text, we can find powerful truths that are especially relevant during this difficult time of social distancing. Scapegoating, as we know, is the act of looking to find others to blame for underlying problems in society. The term comes from the ritual we find in our parashah of banishing a goat into the wilderness with the sins of the people placed upon it by the High Priest. We don’t exactly know how this was observed in ancient days, but the symbolism of finding a target upon which to place our troubles has been part of our history as a people. Scapegoating, in essence, is an attempt to externalize our fears and find ways to explain away those things which plague our society. As Jews, we know all too well the dangers inherent in being scapegoated as well as scapegoating others.

Our second text, however, teaches us that holiness is not some external force that can be captured or controlled. On the contraryit is part of our very nature. You will be holy, because Adonai our God is holy.” We who are created in the Divine image understand both our ability and the inevitability of experiencing the sacred simply because of how we were created. The text continues on to teach us how to act with holiness: to honor our parents, form a just society, and treat the weakest among us with the respect and dignity deserving of holy beings.

In a very real sense, these two concepts create a dichotomy of human behavior. On one extreme, we all too often look outside of ourselves to point blame and rationalize our actions and missteps. Scapegoating is a refusal to accept responsibility for our failures. The other extreme, however, teaches us that the mitzvah of understanding our intrinsic, internal holiness leads us to own and embrace our actions and our humanity. When we see ourselves as striving to be holy, everything we do leads us towards our goal and helps us to celebrate all of God’s creation rather than looking for easy targets for scorn and hatred.

These past weeks have shown us both sides of our two parashot. We have witnessed how ignorance, fear, and prejudice have blinded people and created irrational and racist tropes which begin in the far fringes of society, but all too often are rapidly and eagerly consumed by those looking for easy answers. The targeting of Asians, medical professionals, and accusations of conspiracy against leaders who set boundaries in order to help save lives are just a few examples of the kind of ugly behavior brought about by scapegoating. And yes, Jews have been targeted as well.

But we also have found examples of incredible holiness in response to the pandemic. The selfless caring exhibited by health care professionals, first responders, and all those who literally risk their lives by going to work every day so that the rest of us might be safe, shows us holiness in real time. Their sacrifice and dedication remind us to look for God’s presence wherever we gaze.

And so, my questions for this week revolve around our tendency to both externalize our fears and embrace the holiness that is within us.

  1. How often, over the past weeks of social distancing, have I found myself blaming others in order to rationalize my fears, anxieties, and self-doubts?
  2.  How tolerant have I been of others’ weaknesses—especially those exhibited by our leaders?
  3. Have I been quick to judge policies and emergency measures without looking for the underlying reasons they were put in place?   
  4. How often have I allowed myself to give thanks for the ability to shelter-in-place and be safe in the midst of this pandemic?
  5. Have I been able to see the holiness in myself?
  6. Have I been able to see the holiness in others in my household?
  7. As a sacred “work in progress,” have I been able to acknowledge that only God is perfect—even though I have the capacity for holiness within me? Have I been able to see my mistakes and flaws as benchmarks towards my personal journey to find internal holiness?

Again, these questions are in no way complete. They are designed to help us look within ourselves and our souls as we journey together through the unknown.

May we all learn to accept, embrace, and anticipate our growth as imperfect beings with the capacity to seek out holiness and celebrate it in our lives.

Amen.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 

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mental health Torah

Responding to and Healing from Our Own ‘Tzaraat’ Without Stigma or Shame

In days of old, when a person came down with scaly skin, weird baldness, and strange discharge, he or she went to Aharon or one of his descendants, priests all, to be diagnosed. If it was bad enough, if it was indeed tzaraat,once translated as leprosy, but understood by the rabbis as a spiritual, not just physical diseasethe ill person was isolated and sent outside the camp to get better. After a certain amount of time, the person with tzaraat would return to the community, with an elaborate welcoming ritual: mikvah, a sacrifice, and an anointing by Aharon himself. But what happens when we are all sent outside the camp?  

In this second half of this week’s parshah, there is an even stranger idea introduced: tzaraat of a house. What might look like mold on the walls of the house might be something more dangerous, more insidious – the plague of tzaraat in the house, permeating the walls and inner workings of the place where we dwell. Once again, if “plague” of the house is suspected, or feared, a person goes to the priest, who examines the house. If the house does not “heal” within seven days, it must be taken apart, brick by brick, stone by stone, and those building blocks cast outside the camp. The house is then rebuilt, plastering new stones in in place of the old, plagued ones.

What are we to learn from this? Here we are, in a time of “plague,” both separated from one another for our own good, and yet connected in our separation; here we are, alone, together. And I am struck that in the Torah, when a person is afflicted with tzaraat, there is no shame; there is simply a method of dealing with the occurrence. Indeed, we are told later in the Torah, that when Miriam was struck with tzaraat, the entire community of Israel waited seven days for her to heal so that she could rejoin the camp before they all moved on, together. (While the rabbis make a connection between tzaraat and lashon hara, I am going in a completely different direction here, so bear with me!) So, too, we might treat those of us who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depressionwhether normative, existential responses to the world we are inhabiting right now, or those of us who have actual mental illnesses. When in doubt, the first thing to do is to get help:  go to someone to check out your condition. That might be a friend, or a fellow rabbi. It might be a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. This reaching out for help is the first step in treating the problem. It is, alas, not a magic step: even Aharon, the high priest, could not instantly cure tzaraat.  But he, and we, can at least name the problem, and take steps to treat it.  

Of course, we shouldn’t send folks with mental health issues outside the camp. We want to decrease stigma, not validate harmful stereotypes! And the rabbinic interpretation of the treatment of the m’tzora is already moving in that direction. Concerning the m’tzora, the Torah explains, her clothes shall be rent, her head shall be bare; she shall cover her upper lip and call out “טמא, טמא!! Impure! Impure!…And her dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45)

Upon first reading, this crying out is a way to tell people “to go away, avoid me. I am sick, I am dangerous. I have bipolar disorder! My child is autistic!  I am so anxious I can’t get dressed in the morning! I am mentally ill: beware lest I infect you. I am impure, unclean, perhaps even God has forsaken me!!” But the rabbis turn this over upon its head. In the Talmud, in Tractate Niddah (66a) they explain, the afflicted person calls out “טמא!” so as let others “know of his sufferings so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf.” Instead of casting out those who suffer, it is our job to bring into our community those who are in pain. And until we know who is hurting, we cannot help one another.

Sometimes, when mental illness, or just overwhelming stress, enters our lives, our daily routine can become a “plagued” house. We have to look at the stones that make up our lives, and see which ones are moldy and full of tzaraat, full of things that are making our depression or anxiety worse, and cast out those behaviors. Perhaps we need moreor less sleep. How is our eating: full of sugar, or nutrients? We can look for balance: for actions that heal, and also forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, for doing the best we can. Sometimes, a five-mile run is the best we can. Sometimes, taking a shower takes as much effort and deserves just as much credit. 

We will survive this external plague of COVID-19. With compassion and courage, we can name and respond to the internal tzaraat among us as well.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

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Healing member support mental health Torah

Confronting Our Fears through Tazria and M’tzora

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria and M’tzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or bat mitzvah student who receives it for their Shabbat service. Tazria and M’tzora speak of bodily functions, illness, and quarantine. It talks about:

  • Childbirth
  • Disease
  • Contact with bodily fluids
  • Afflictions of the skin

It also speaks of how, when a person contracts a condition like this, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections, and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease—it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well—thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease to a more global condition.

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two Torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the coronavirus—but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place. What lessons can we learn—not only from the content of our parashah, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat—which we translate as leprosy, but clearly is something else—are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care. Rather, I think, they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually. The fact that houses can be infected, as well as humans, should give us a clue that more is going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This time of quarantine, illness, and loss has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic, are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones—some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support, and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria and M’tzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium. This can manifest itself in many different forms—from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt, and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following seven questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:

  1. Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2. For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those with whom I am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than television, the internet, and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been—or will be—socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?

Again, these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 


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Torah

What Tazria and M’tzora Can Teach Us about Disease and Leadership

What is the real purpose of leadership? In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history, religious leadership was the kohanim, priests. What was the true purpose of the priests? According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community. Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community. Numerous midrashim from the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations. This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right. A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase. Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness. There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations. The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example. Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria and M’tzora: how to deal with a certain kind of disease. Tazria gives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת, tzaraat, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community. The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week. If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence. There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality. That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority. Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God. While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community. That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases. Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment—be it physical or spiritual. The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described. The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzaraat. A priest determines if the treatment needs only to be of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses. Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzaraat occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none, the house gets the disease. This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment. The very next midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbah lists ten sins that will bring on tzaraat. Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease. They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation. They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons. God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level. Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction. In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today: How are our leaders protecting exposure? Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life? Are leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes? Is their focus on their personal situation or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught? Finally, what are we as individuals doing to increase the Divine presence? Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others? Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g., all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions? All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less?


Rabbi W. Jack Romberg worked in business for eighteen years, then, at age 42 entered HUC-JIR. After ordination, he served for eighteen years as the rabbi for Temple Israel in Tallahassee, Florida, and upon retirement in June of 2019 received a key to the city from the mayor. As Rabbi Emeritus, he writes weekly Torah commentaries for the congregation.

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Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.

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Healing mental health News Torah

The Salted Offering: Grief’s Place on the Altar

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi wrote this piece to share with colleagues in the Hillel world (and beyond) via Hillel International’s Office of Innovation. 


I’ve been crying a lot these days. Many of you have been, too. From the increasingly distressing news, to the demands of homeschooling our young children, to mourning the loss of the senior year we had dreamed of for so long, much brings us to tears.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very comforted when first I turned to this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayikra. Detailing the circumstances and forms of the various sacrifices our people were commanded to bring to the altar of the Temple, the parashah starts right in with details for which animals to bring at which times, how they would be slaughtered, and what type of expiation would be thereby attained. Collective guilt, blood and sinew, the recognition that closeness requires sacrifice: the truths contained in the priestly sacrifices seemed both too distant and too close to home.

In this global crisis, there’s too much blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, and hoarding; and yet, we see also glimpses of collective responsibility, from sewing homemade masks to calling nursing home residents barred from welcoming in-person visitors. The porousness of our bodies confronts us everywhere we look; I could spin into despair, and then I hear my youngest singing, “Happy Birthday to Someone,” each and every time they wash their little hands, and I smile. On the tree-lined sidewalks of my Brooklyn street, as flowering trees begin to blossom, I find myself shuffling away from my neighbors; and then I recall with fear and gratitude the closeness to this disease of my friends and students and colleagues who are healthcare workers.

What a time to read of the sacrifices of our people—and their awe, which we understand so differently now—of our bodily fluids and the precarious barrier between life and death.

And then a particular verse caught my eye:

וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל-קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח

 “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Vayirka 2:13).

Immediately photos of emptied grocery store shelves flashed in my mind. No milk. No flour. No bread. No toilet paper. No disinfectant, or paper towels, or vinegar, or pasta, or frozen vegetables, or medical masks, or latex gloves. Salt in plenty.

A precious preservative, salt represents an everlasting covenant, a relationship between God and the people that stands the test of time, as the Ramban notes. But there is another meaning, and it comes from the story of creation.

In the beginning, all was chaos, and the waters were united. It was not until the second day that God “separated water from water” (B’reishit 1:6‒7).

Imagine how it felt for those waters: united for the eye-blink of an eternity, before there was anything at all, anything but God and the unformed void, there were waters, confusedly one. Suddenly, God begins the great act of creation, and in that act of creation, God made something new for the waters: distance, separation.

In what seemed to some a moment, in what seemed to others an agonizingly slow few weeks as the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe, the human family faced a new and stark separation. We tribal creatures have retreated to separate abodes, water divided from water.

According to the Midrash, the inevitable consequence of this separation was…tears:

אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה

Rabbi Berechyah said: “The waters below did not separate from those above except with weeping” (B’reishit Rabbah 5:4).

Here it is: the salt. According to the wise rabbis of our tradition, the salt we offer at the altar, the salt that accompanies all our sacrifices, has its origins in the tears of separation. The salt of the waters before creation, the waters that became sea and sky, were salty tears of grief.

What does it mean, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to season our offerings with salt? It means we bring our tears to all that we give in this crisis, and that is okay. It means that what connects us to God and to tradition and to the Jewish people, spread out as we are and isolated in our individual homes, is not only the gifts we bring, but our griefs and our disappointments as well.

Indeed, says the great Torah commentator Rashi, when God saw the disappointment and sadness of the lower waters, God decreed that the salt of the sea would forever be offered upon the altar, linking what is below to what is above, what is mundane to what is holy.

It can be this way for us, too. During this crisis, we can maintain our holy and life-giving distance, and we can mourn the loss of closeness, community, and contact. We can sacrifice what is needed, the “fat” of our material resources, and we can season those offerings with our feelings of loss.

Our tradition demands much of us: no longer the precisely rendered fats and juices of bulls and rams and turtle-doves; instead, a daily, rhythmical, cyclical attention to the blessings (quotidian and extraordinary) that surround us, and a scrupulous quest to engage in practices ethical and collectively beneficial. In such times as these, the demands of tradition can ground us. But without the salt of our grief and disappointment, we risk being crushed under their enormity.

Vulnerability is frightening. And it is deeply human. From the Torah and from modern thinkers like Brene Brown, we can gain much from looking at our vulnerability as an offering we can make alongside our resilience, strength, and pragmatism (all of which we need right now).

Ask yourself today: What sacrifices have I made to benefit the public good during this crisis? What sacrifices have I made to preserve my own safety, the safety of those I love, or the safety of my neighbors and community?

Light a candle. Breathe in for a count of four. Focus on a sacrifice you have made. Now breathe out for a count of four. As you watch the flickering flame, as you see its smoke rise, know that your sacrifices are linked to the sacrifices our people have made in the past.

Ask yourself today: What offerings have I withheld from my family, my friends, my community, at this time? How might I safely contribute my gifts?

Have you forgotten what talents and skills you possess? It’s easy, in times of high anxiety and widespread fear, to focus on what we cannot do, on how powerless we might feel. Imagine yourself, picture yourself, at your most skillful and competent. What characterizes you at your best? Make a list of these attributes. Brainstorm one action you might take to use that skill as a gift to others, whether they be folks in your household or in the wider world.

And, finally, ask yourself now: What griefs and disappointments have seemed “too trivial” to voice during this crisis? While it is true that this pandemic affects us differently, with very real and dire unique consequences for the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor (the list is far too long), we may also be holding on to grief unrecognized. I have spoken with wedding couples blessed to have one another, and yet grieving the celebration they have been forced to downsize or cancel. I have heard from students with secure places to live and plenty of food, and yet grieving the commencement ceremony they had pictured for four long years. Your griefs and disappointments are real, and need not be placed on a scale of “worst” or “hardest.”

And so the Torah reminds us: make your sacrifices, for the sake of the whole people, but do not omit the salt from your offerings. Your grief has a place on the altar.


Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, spent the first years of her rabbinate at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. She is currently transitioning into freelance and other rabbinic work; learn more at rabbinikki.com

Categories
CCAR Convention Torah

Baltimore Beit Midrash: Learning From the Greatest Scholars of Our Generation at CCAR Convention 2020

I look forward to the CCAR Convention each year. There are many different facets that I enjoy, including the opportunity to study with colleagues that I’ve known for many years and colleagues that I meet for the first time.  In the rabbinic imagination, there are seventy faces to Torah, and inevitably, I come home from Convention each year having learned a new text or a new insight into a familiar text.

This year, our study at Convention will include a remarkable opportunity. We have assembled some of the greatest scholars of our generation—including Andrea Weiss, David Ellenson, Michael Marmur, Lisa Grant, Elsie Stern, Amy Scheinerman, and Joseph Skloot—to lead us in a beit midrash. The beit midrash, or study hall, will begin our day with a foundation of significant learning. The texts and ideas that will be presented will provide us with a lens for the entire day to come.

So many of us have a commitment to lifelong learning as a foundation of our rabbinic leadership. We create opportunities in our home communities for learning, and in order to sustain this, we need to continue our own learning. Our professors, who will each teach a personal passion with topics ranging from sacred texts of the Second Temple era to understanding Jewish identity in modern times, will provide us with intellectual and spiritual renewal.

I believe that most of us can remember our favorite teachers, from whatever part of our educational career. These teachers cared for us deeply, helped us identify and pursue our potential, and provided us with knowledge and skills that continue to sustain us.

Our beit midrash teachers at Convention have approached this opportunity with exactly these high aspirations. They believe in us as rabbis, they hope to share with us in ways that allow us to flourish, and they are prepared to give us knowledge and scholarly insight that will stay with us when we return home from Convention.

It has been a blessing to work on this particular aspect of our Baltimore program. Without fail, each scholar was filled with excitement, and sought to identify topics that would be inspirational, interesting, and engaging.  I look forward to seeing many of you as we turn the halls of the Renaissance Hotel into a timeless beit midrash!


Rabbi Peter Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and a member of the 2020 CCAR Convention Committee.

CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. CCAR members can register here.

Categories
Rabbis Torah

We Are Witnesses – Parashat Va-y’chi

The following is a d’var Torah on the Parashat Va-y’chi given by Meir Bargeron at the 74th annual convention of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis in January 2020.


In Parashat Va-ychi, we find ourselves at the end of B’reishit, a book that covers an immense amount of literary, religious, and physical territory. From the first moments of the universe, to the court of the Egyptian pharaoh, the narrative moves from the tremendously macro-view of space, and time, and earth, to the micro-view of human relationships. And along the way, humanity and God form a relationship that eventually becomes an eternal covenant. B’reishit is vast in its scope, and its author chooses to end the story with a family drama; a drama that propels the children of Israel forward on their—and on our—trajectory to redemption and revelation. And, it is a drama that has much to say to us as rabbis about our holy work.

This moment in the life of Jacob and the lives of his sons is the culmination of decades of family dysfunction and conflict, and the Torah is its witness. This is a parashah about death and dying, about a father’s deep concern about the generations that will follow. About love that is unevenly distributed between a father and his children. About cruelty between brothers and its after-effects. Va-ychi is about truth-telling at the end of life.

Imagine for a moment being in the room with Jacob and his sons at the end of his life, knowing the stories of what all they have been through, and hearing each story from the array of perspectives. Imagine being called on to provide care and comfort to Jacob, to Joseph, and to Ruben, Simeon, and Levi. What challenging pastoral work this would be!

We rabbis are the collectors of people’s stories, and we hold them. Just as the Torah is a witness to the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs; as rabbis we are witnesses to the lives of the souls under our care—in beautiful and in painful moments. We provide spiritual care and comfort to people as they endure illness and approach death. We listen as they tell us their regrets and hear their Vidui as they seek God’s forgiveness. Sometimes the duty falls upon us to say this confessional prayer for them. We are witnesses to the humanity of these exquisite and excruciating moments. It is our sacred responsibility.

Caring for people through their pain and through their losses is indeed sacred work. And we offer our care at a great personal cost. We do this willingly; it is part of who we are as rabbis. We are called to serve in these sacred moments, and we are almost always the only rabbi in the room.

In these rooms of sacred care, we hold stories of great family pain, and stories of joy and stories of death and life and every mess, every trauma, in between. The relationships we observe and the stories we hear become psychically and spiritually connected to our own stories; particularly to our losses, our sadness, our fears. For a fleeting, soul-searing moment, these stories become our stories. They become etched on the parchment of our own soul’s torah, that is weathered and worn, and achingly beautiful. The torah of our souls must be tended to with loving care, or the ink will smear, the scroll may tear. We rabbis can tear, if we fail to tend to ourselves and each other.

We are indeed often the only rabbi in the room. Yet, we need help to hold these exquisite and excruciating moments of life. We need our professional networks, we need our friends who understand this awesome responsibility, we need our rabbis—we need each other.

Here is my audacious request of you, of each of us: make a call, send a text, reach out to care or to be cared for. On this Shabbat, when you say the Mi Shebeirach for healing, include in your silent prayers a prayer for sacred caregivers, for those who hold the stories of others, for each of us.


Meir Bargeron, MSW is a member of the ordination class of 2020 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He will enter the rabbinate following a career in clinical social work and non-profit administration. Meir is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. 

Categories
Books Torah

Book Excerpt: “Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot”

In recognition of the new CCAR Press book, Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, edited by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, we are honored to share this excerpt from a chapter on the Torah parashot Noach. This new collection follows the classic Voices of Torah, giving insight and inspiration on each Torah parashah, including holiday portions, and is available for purchase from CCAR Press.

נח Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, 2010

Noach ish tzaddik . . . b’dorotav, “Noah was a righteous person . . . in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).

We are all familiar with the Rashi on this verse. The word b’dorotav can be viewed either positively or negatively. First, positively: despite his generation, Noah was righteous—as if there was a righteousness meter and Noah reached the level that any generation would call a tzaddik. Alternatively, Noah could only be considered righteous in his own generation, the generation of the Flood.

Too often we take this dichotomy into our own spiritual lives. How do we know how much we need to do in order to be good? Is there a level of study, tzedakah, or hospital visits we should be doing? Where do these levels come from? Yet, we are also told that we need to spend time with our families, go on vacations, network with colleagues, and even have a social life. The most limited resource for any rabbi is time. Are we doomed to a guilt-ridden life of “If only I had done more?” (I already hear—“Nu, what do you expect, we’re Jews!”) Whether we use subjective or objective measures, will that voice in our heads (mother? superego? conscience?) ever let us be content?

We, as much as our congregants, need to remember Reb Zusya’s lesson: “In the world-to-come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Whether Noah was righteous only in his generation or in any generation is less important than whether Noah was the best Noah he could be. So too for us. As we reflect on each day and each year, let us not forget the wonderful contributions we have made to the lives of so many. Let us remember our own limits and the importance of practicing self-care. To truly do our best is difficult enough. We are so used to saying, Hineini!—Here I am!; let us not forget our tradition also includes, Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, “You are not required to complete the task” (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Rabbi Bill S. Tepper, 2012

Parashat Noach offers one of the first and most powerful illustrations of the role played by water in our tradition. Though a source of life, it is also—as natural disasters have demonstrated—a cause of destruction.

With water, God destroys nearly all of Creation, while simultaneously cleansing the earth in order that Creation—humanity in particular—may begin anew. With water, Abraham generously bathes the feet of God’s messengers. It is near a well that Abraham’s servant encounters Rebekah and that Jacob first sees Rachel. Both are pivotal meetings that ensure the perpetuation of our people. At the Sea of Reeds and at the Jordan River, our ancestors cross through water and undergo their transformation toward nationhood. In our own day, water remains associated with transformation and cleansing. Water is essential for tahorah, tashlich, and mikveh—traditionally understood as purification of body, spirit, and relationship.

The magnificent rivers, lakes, and oceans that define so much of our natural landscape and are sources of indescribable beauty can also bring about suffering, either through human misstep or act of nature. Niagara Falls is breathtaking to observe, but images of Hurricane Katrina conjure up horror and despair.

Only a slender thread separates delight and pain. May we today not retreat to our own arks as we continue to both cherish and fear the water that is fundamental to our lives.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, 2015

Midrash Tanchuma offers details on the Noach narrative that lift it out of the mold of the familiar children’s tale.

The word usually translated as “ark” in the biblical text is teivah, an Egyptian loanword meaning “box.” This particular box kept danger (the Flood) out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. Some of the animals were dangerous; a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Ps. 142:8, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks,” the Rabbis tell us that these words refer to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but misery. The Rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him harshly because he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. In comparison with Abraham, who advocated for his fellow human beings, the Rabbis found Noach wanting.

The Rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own, to Avraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare? Might he have convinced God to rethink the Flood? What “boxes” do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2017

Finding the world awash in the chaos of evil and corruption, God reverses the order of Creation, releasing the waters held back by the firmament and land. The world is engulfed with water, returning it to watery tohu vavohu. The people, who at first seemed pristine and perfect, showed their true colors while still in the Garden of Eden: imperfect human beings. So God wipes away humanity and begins anew with a new “first family”— Noah’s family.

Jonathan Sacks points out in Essays on Ethics that in the ideal garden, the so-far perfect people needed to know they were created b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27), but after the Flood, when the extent of the capacity for human evil is evident, people need to know that others are created in God’s image as well (Gen. 9:6). There is a world of difference between focusing on the divine image in one’s self and recognizing it in others. As Sacks points out, the former affirms that all in Creation is good, but the latter emphasizes the necessity of covenant, which introduces moral law into the world: prescriptions to restore “good.” He writes, “So, according to the Torah, a new era began, centered not on the idea of natural goodness, but on the concept of covenant—that is, moral law” (p. 12)—from “I am tzelem Elohim” to “you are tzelem Elohim.”

That lesson, that the other is also tzelem Elohim, remains the lynchpin for morality and the hardest lesson to teach. It must become the litmus test for policies in our local communities, for our national political endeavors, and throughout the world.


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, earned her doctorate from the Department of Rabbinic Literature at Potsdam University, Germany and is the senior editor at CCAR Press. Rabbi Joshua Minkin, DMin, has been chief Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Canarsie since 2003. Rabbi Bill S. Tepper is the part-time rabbi at Temple  Shalom in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Rabbi Ruth Adar, known as the Coffee Shop Rabbi, teaches through HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, California and discusses film on her blog A Rabbi At the Movies. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is the hospice rabbi in Howard County, Maryland, and is the editor of the Torah Commentary column of the CCAR newsletter from which Voices of Torah is collected. These accomplished rabbis have all contributed to the newly released Voices of Torah, Volume 2: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

Categories
Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.