A “Clean” Soul

8 Lepers in the Bible (and Midrash) - What Do You Think? - Parshah

This week, we delve into two parahshot that are mostly famous for their dealings with the condition known as “leprosy.” The Torah describes a very specific protocol for how to identify, treat, quarantine, and eventually purify someone who has been afflicted with “tzaraat.” Leviticus chapter 13, verse 2 says, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.” There is certainly a great deal to unpack regarding the attention given to “tzaraat” in the Torah, and how we, as moderns, can consume and digest this ancient information in a meaningful way. 

When reading through the Torah’s chapters on “tzaraat,” one could take all of the information and prescriptions quite literally. A person afflicted with “tzaraat” was considered physically impure and was thus barred from entering the Sanctuary. In fact, someone who was affected was largely considered dead to the people of Israel until they were deemed to be cured. Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan even once said that a person should be forbidden to walk four cubits to the east of a leper. Rabbi Yohanan’s colleague Rabbi Simeon, not to be outdone, said that one should not walk even one hundred cubits east of a leper. It turns out that both were in agreement, but Rabbi Yohanan was referring to a time when the wind was not blowing. It seems that the Torah and the scholars of the Talmud were in agreement that something was quite amiss when “tzaraat” had been inflicted upon an individual. 

There are some issues to explore before we move any further. What was once called leprosy is a diagnosable medical condition called Hansen’s Disease, and it is actually quite difficult to transfer from one person to another. The CDC makes it clear that Hansen’s Disease transmission from person-to-person requires prolonged exposure to an infected person over many months, and many of the signs and symptoms are not quite consistent with what is described in the Torah. The word “tzaraat” that is so often translated to mean “leprosy,” is a questionable translation that likely has its roots in the Septuagint, or “Greek Old Testament.” When being translated into Greek, ‘tzaraat” was replaced with the Greek word for “scaly,” which is “lepra.” Talk about an affliction that was likely lost in translation.

So, what to make of “tzaraat” in the Torah? I am inclined to agree with 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh. According to Rabbi Hirsh, the scripture only mentions treatment of “tzaraat” by kohanim, or priests, and no medical experts or healers are mentioned at all. So… 

Perhaps “tzaraat” should be examined as a physical manifestation of a malady of the soul. 

According to the tradition of the Rabbis, a person who has been infected with “tzaraat” is known as a “metzora.” This word, “metzora,” is a Hebrew contraction of the words “motzi” and “ra,” and translates to “a person who spreads slander.” Hertz’s commentary mentions how the Rabbis actually referred to “tzaraat” as a punishment for tale bearing or slander. Essentially, a person who talks about others, spreads falsehoods, and does damage by lying and deceiving, should be removed from the people of Israel. When we are talking about ailments of the soul and spirit, kohanim, or priests, being the primary caretakers begins to make sense. “When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest” (Lev. 13:9). Notice how the plague is in a man, and not on a man. Interesting wording for a skin disease, no?

We do damage to ourselves and others when we act as a “metzora.” The Torah talks of raw flesh rising, boils, and white spots of infection. Physical manifestations of what our soul might go through when we slander others, or act selfishly. We all know people who we deem to be “toxic.” we can have toxic friends, toxic family members, and toxic co-workers. Intimate relationships, and even marriages can become what we refer to as toxic. Do we imply that the relationship is literally poisonous? Of course not. When we are involved in toxic situations or with toxic people, it leaves us feeling drained, stressed, anxious, and even sick. People who act in a toxic way tend to bring those around them down as well, and the contagiousness of their toxic behavior can sometimes only be avoided by creating distance. Sometimes we must quarantine ourselves emotionally and spiritually from the toxic person or situation. This is not a COVID-19 type of quarantine, but one of the soul. As Jews, we make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Our communities are often small, and it is easy for a toxicity of behavior to disrupt the well-being of an entire community. The Torah makes it clear that the plague can infect ourselves, our homes, even our garments. No area of our life is untouched by one who acts with toxic intentions. “This is the law of the plague of leprosy…” (Lev. 13:59). “The law,” referring to the prescription of how to remove “uncleanliness” from the people of Israel.

It is important that we look at not only who we choose to surround ourselves with, what relationships to nurture, and what situations to attend to–but also that we look inward and reflect upon our own behaviors. How can we lift people up instead of putting them down? Are there any toxic behaviors or tendencies that we can work on rectifying? Is my soul bogged down with “tzaraat?” The next time we act, perhaps we should envision that the intentions of our actions will manifest themselves on our skin. What kind of beauty or boil would my actions create on my outer-self? If our answer does not satisfy, perhaps it is time to isolate and destroy the toxic “tzaraat” in our souls. And then, “…after that may [we] come into the camp” (Lev. 14:8) and rejoin our people, who need us to have a clear mind with good intentions. 

May we all be blessed to “clean” up our own toxicity, and to remove the “tzaraat” from our daily lives. We, as Jews, must always be looking to improve and lift up the world and those who inhabit it. 

Shalom.

-Joshua

For Yom HaShoah

7 Ideas for Observing Yom HaShoah from Home | ReformJudaism.org

As we observe Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on a yearly basis, we are told the stories of death and the stories of survivial in the midst of the most tangible evil imaginable. The 6 million Jews who were murdered, and also the millions of others killed, can never be forgotten, lest we allow this evil to rear its head once again on this earth. As famous survivor and eventual “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.” I would alter that to say “good people.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi said: “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart rope” (B. Suk 52a).

What do we make of Rabbi Assi’s words? Let’s examine for a moment. The gut-wrenching scenes of death, murder, and genocide that were left in the wake of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” did not happen overnight. The seeds of all hatred and evil are sown and take time to grow. They need to be nourished, watered, and given sunlight in order to blossom into the full-fledged and realized nightmare that was the Holocaust. “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer…” The evil impulses that sparked the Shoah or any other hate-filled evil campaign likely began as what one might call a series of microaggressions. A microaggression can be something as seemingly miniscule as a dirty look or an off-color comment. “They are all like that, or, “Those people all do that.” Have we ever seen someone cross the street to avoid even passing by someone who was perceived as different? An eye roll, a rude sigh, the feeding of a stereotype–all of these microaggressions are the ammunition that can ultimately culminate in actualized shots fired.

We must ask the question–How do people get to a place where others are perceived as somehow less than human, or how does the spider’s gossamer become as thick as a cart rope, as Rabbi Assi would say? Psychology tells us that the group that is being dehumanized is first categorized, not as human at all, but as beast or sub-human. The Nazis were well-known for propaganda that crudely depicted Jews as rats and parasites. The categorization, along with vivid imagery and metaphor are meant to evoke an emotional reaction from the dominant group. If a rat is perceived as dirty and needing to be exterminated in someone’s mind, how does one convince them to feel the same way about a Jewish person? The Jew is described, depicted, and compared to something less-than-human, and becomes, over time, in the mind of those who are being fed the information, less than human. The screams of a Jew exiting a train at Auschwitz, or being ripped from their homes and families, become nothing more than the equivalent of the squeals of a rat caught in a trap.

This process is systematic and sneaky. This is why a microaggression is never “just a comment,” or “just an isolated incident.” There is not “just,” and there never can be, if we wish to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from ever happening to the Jews, or any other marginalized group, ever again. We must cut the gossamer long before it ever becomes a cart rope.

We know that we must remain vigilant, remember, and continue to teach the horrors of the Holocaust to future generations. But, what about G-d? Perhaps we have heard people question the existence of G-d altogether based upon the Shoah. “How could G-d let this happen?” or, “If G-d exists, wouldn’t He have stopped such horrific things from occurring?” While these questions are large, and perhaps mostly unanswerable, it does not mean we should avoid broaching them. Remember, “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle with G-d. Jews do not have to be wary of questioning. Rabbi Nahman of the Talmud brings up an interesting scriptural insight into man’s capacity for evil. In reference to Genesis 2:17, Rabbi Nahman points out how the Hebrew word “Va-yitzer” is spelled with two yods. “Va-yitzer” translates to “He formed man.” Why are the two yods in the word? Rabbi Nahman attributes this spelling to the fact that G-d created two “yetzers,” or “impulses” in man. One impulse was created to good, and the other to evil (B. Ber 61a). The good impulse is referred to as “yetzer hatov,” and the evil as “yetzer hara.” The Talmud tells us that the evil yetzer hara can be reined in completely by yetzer hatov.

What can we take from this? Good can overcome evil, and the light of our deeds and mitzvot will outlast the darkness of evil. We can garner evidence of the ability of good to overcome evil directly in the Torah. In Genesis 8:21 G-d says: “…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” If evil is the original dominant impulse of man, how does there exist so much good in the world? How could Anne Frank write in her famous diary at such a tender age that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” Perhaps it is because G-d is in Anne’s diary. Even as Anne and her loved ones faced unimaginable hardship and death, Anne saw the overwhelming and unflappable goodness of G-d in humankind. G-d is in even what seems like the smallest act of tzedakah, or the seemingly flash in the pan mitzvah. If a microaggression is the seed of the flower of terrible evil, then the smallest act of good is the seed of an entire tree of kindness, good, and righteousness.

We see the good among evil in our world right now. How many beautiful acts of kindness do we see in response to the current and brutally unforgiving pandemic? We hear stories of selfless heroism in the form of “essential work.” When hope appears hard to come by, it does seem as if people really are good at heart. Yes, the yetzer hara exists, and it is our job to make sure that yetzer hatov addresses evil impulses and then exiles them into oblivion. It is our job to do good. The Mishkan T’Filah says “Pray as if everything depended on G-d. Act as if everything depended on you.”

The presence of evil in the world does not imply that G-d does not exist, it proves that we still have work to do.

We must “overreact” to words, actions, and hints of hatred and evil. We must cut the rope of evil while it is in its gossamer-like infancy, never letting it reach the actualization of a sturdy rope. The snowball of hate is like a thief in the night, so we must keep the lights on at all times, remembering that evil has happened, but G-d has given us all the blessing of preventing it from ever happening again. We are armed with knowledge, tradition, and awareness. We must never forget the 6 million Jews of the Shoah. Their memories are even more than for a blessing, but also an impulse to do good now and in the future–the breath of yetzer hatov.

I would like to close with the prayer El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Compassion)

Fully compassionate God on high:

To our six million brothers and sisters

murdered because they were Jews,

grant clear and certain rest with You

in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure

whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.

Source of mercy:

Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;

secure their souls in eternity.

Adonai: they are Yours.

They will rest in peace.

Amen.

Joshua

Please Take Off Your Shoes

Printable Please Take Off Your Shoes Sign – Free Printable Signs

I think it is safe to say that we are all currently worried, if not preoccupied, about germs, viruses and bacteria. We live amidst constant reminders that the world is not safe, and that we are in danger. There is a new hand-written sign outside of my house directly adjacent to our mezuzah that says, “Please take off your shoes.” Oh, how we have always blamed those shoes for tracking in a myriad of creepy crawly microscopic bacteria. If science tells us anything, taking our shoes off before entering a home is certainly an idea based in sound logic. With a newborn safely inside, and Covid-19 rampaging outside, taking off our shoes seems like the least that can be done in my own home. After some consideration, I have realized that this sign, which was constructed by my wife, could also be interpreted as something rooted in the Divine. 

I am proposing that we all take off our shoes–but perhaps not only to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria. Remember that G-d said to Moses: “…put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). While it might be easy to continue reading the Torah, and sort of ruffle through that whole bit about footwear, a closer look is certainly required. I was reading through the Book of Joshua a night or two ago, and this whole shoe (or sandal) issue came up again. “The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:15). While there are many commentaries and interpretations regarding why G-d asked this of two of the most famous prophets, Martin Buber gives a simple and beautiful explanation. In Buber’s “Ten Rungs,” he tells us that G-d has commanded Moses to take off his shoes due to the fact that there exists no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of G-d everywhere and at all times. 

G-d is not only everywhere, but always there. While we are confined in our homes, G-d is there as much as G-d is in our synagogues or with us as we travel. G-d is there. I remember eight-plus hour days at work–wearing shoes from the early morning until late in the evening. My feet would be tired and suffocated, seemingly longing for the glorious freedom of the floor. Since we are all better off being home now, it might be the best time to “take off our shoes,” if even in a spiritual way. In Bereishit we are told, “Vayitzer Adonai Elohim et ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah” or, “And the Lord G-d created man, of the dust from the earth” (Genesis 2:7). Since we have come from dust, perhaps we should embrace some of it with our own feet. Do we not put shoes, or barriers, between ourselves and G-d all the time? 

I know that I am guilty of this myself. I have a beautiful newborn baby, but do I ever miss a moment when her incredible blue eyes are open to read the latest news about the spread of Covid-19? I am sure I do. How can we live in this moment without shoes? We use them to complete an outfit, to make us taller, to give us status. Now is the time we are permitted to let those pressures fade away. While we are all required to be barefoot, should we not take some time to really feel our feet on the ground? The hustle and bustle of our routine lives requires us to wear many pairs of shoes. Now, we can take time to wiggle our toes in the sand of our spirits, and find something holy in everything. Happiness, which is such a packed term, can perhaps be located within what we view as the minutiae or humdrum of our own homes. Martin Buber said that, “Happiness settles the spirit, but sorrow drives it into exile.” Sorrow is around us, and the challenge is to find G-d, holiness and happiness in an uncomfortable and new setting that is void of footwear. 

If we are having trouble finding beauty and the Divine in our homes, it is perhaps helpful to recall that G-d did not first appear and speak to Moses as some majestic gesture in the sky, but in the form of a simple bush that was burning unconsumed. How many bushes on the ground do we miss while always looking up and searching for glorious redwoods? Our tradition tells of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, who replied to a question regarding why G-d chose a bush instead of a grander sort of tree to communicate with Moses. Rabbi ben Korhah replied that no matter what kind of tree, be it a sycamore or a carob tree, the same question would still have been asked. He said that G-d used the bush to show us that no place on earth, even a bush, is devoid of G-d’s presence. (Exod. R. 2:5). Perhaps we can take the time to notice the bushes a bit more as we walk barefoot for the foreseeable future.

As my family got home from a quick drive around town (we stayed in the car, I promise), I took off my shoes before entering the house as the sign commanded me. I was holding my large five-year-old boy, and it would have been easy to wince and complain, but I decided to root myself in bushes and bare feet. How blessed am I that my son still wants me to hold him? After the world became quiet with sleep, my newborn daughter and I were left awake. I found myself smiling, and putting my hands upon her, her big blue eyes wide open, saying these words that I wish to share with you today as well:

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.

Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha

V’yaseim l’cha shalom.

May G-d bless you and keep you.

May G-d’s light shine upon you, and may G-d be gracious to you.

May you feel G-d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.

She quickly stared at me and burped. I laughed, felt my bare feet on the floor, sensed the happiness Buber described, and attended to this bush-like moment. 

May you all be blessed to feel the ground beneath your feet, and to feel the presence of the Divine in your own homes as we inhabit them more often than we usually do. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with fear, or out of touch with that which grounds you in joy and happiness, Remember that you can always rely on a seemingly simple act rooted in the Divine. Please take off your shoes–for you are standing on holy ground. Always.

Shalom.

Joshua

Something to Nosh on

What Makes Certain Foods Kosher?

Rabbi Avdimi of Haifa is said to have taught that: “Before a man eats and drinks, he [being distraught] has two hearts. After he eats and drinks, he has but one heart” (Baba Batra 12b). It is no secret that historically, the Jewish people have a strong relationship with food. Yes, many traditions have a notable bond with edible nourishment, but Judaism seems to be very specific regarding just what to eat and how to eat it. This connection between human beings and food is given special consideration in this week’s parshah, Shemini. The overall laws pertaining to living a pure life are given in Vaykira (or Leviticus) chapters 11-24, beginning with the Jewish dietary laws, or laws of kashrut, in Chapter 11 of Vayikra.

While it would likely be redundant to call out all of the laws to you today (Read Leviticus chapter 11 for the comprehensive guide), let us focus on the why of these dietary prescriptions. According to Proverbs 11:17, “He who does good to his own person is a man of mercy.” Also, the great Rabbi Hillel once said to a disciple, “Is not my poor soul a guest in my body–here today and tomorrow here no longer?” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) What it seems like we are seeing a glimpse of is a call for the original Jewish version of the popular term “self-care.” Hertz’s commentary tells us that all of the dietary laws of Judaism are meant to maintain a healthy soul  within a healthy body. In short, can we not use food as one way of taking care of our bodies while our souls are blessed to be in them? 

While reading through the Torah at face value, the reasons for excluding pork, and “all that have not fins and scales in the waters…” (Lev. 11:9) might seem odd or trivial, but rest assured that the intentions are truly holy. The Jewish people were brought out of the land of Egypt in order to be a holy people, and the dietary laws differentiated the clean from the unclean, and the detestable from the honorable. It is even written that in the Middle Ages, during horrific epidemics, the Jewish people tended to fare better than many of their neighbors. This health boost has been attributed, in large part, to the laws of kashrut. This tidbit hits particularly close to home given the current state of world health. There is certainly both an earthly and Heavenly method and interplay to the rules. We were always told as youngsters, “you are what you eat,” and the dietary laws appear to agree with this notion. If what we put into our bodies is clean, so will our souls be. Now, I am not here to prescribe to you a strictly kosher diet, or to ask you if you “keep kosher.” This can be a subject of great emotion for many, as adhering to a strictly kosher diet has been something that has kept the Jews for generations. Many Maccabees, as one example of many, chose death over the breaking of the dietary laws. While different Jewish people often view these laws disparately in the modern world, I must take a cue from Hermann Cohen who stated that, “The mere striving after holiness in itself sanctifies.” We all have different perspectives and experiences which have led us to our current paths. 

I only wish to give a simple reminder that we must take care of our entire selves, and I believe that there is much we can take from the dietary laws in terms of the grand scale. When someone is sick, we say “r’fuah sh’leimah,” which is a complete healing of the body and spirit. How do we engage in self-care, ensuring that our bodies and spirits are running at optimal capacity? Do we eat healthy foods as often as we can? Do we exercise and practice deep breathing or something else that can calm down our excited sympathetic nervous systems? What are your own personal means to a healthy mind-body-soul connection? I make it a point to ask as many people as I can reach to tell me three things that they do exclusively for themselves in a day. If people cannot think of three things (which happens very often), I tell them that they have some thinking to do for the night. In a Jewish sense, regular self-care practices that we engage in can serve not only to bring us good physical health, but can also enable us to cultivate a more fruitful relationship with The Divine.

If you do adhere strictly to the laws of kashrut, I hope that you find health, joy, and connection with G-d in this practice. For those who are on a different path, I hope you are also able to find all of these things, and be confident that you are worth taking care of. 

For all of us, food can certainly be a good place to start along the path to wellness. As Rabbi Meir said, “Grind food well with your teeth, and you will find in your feet the strength to carry your body” (B. Shab. 152a). I wish you all good health of the body and soul as you continue to sojourn toward your own holiness. Nosh responsibly.

Shalom,

Joshua

Erev Pesach

The Death Angel Passes Over an Israelite Door Marked with the ...

As we approach Erev Pesach on 14 Nisan, we seemingly find ourselves in a situation that is frightening, isolative, and odd. We either read the news, or experience directly (or both), the horrors of a plague that have shaken the world. Some might find it strange to be talking about freedom from enslavement in Egypt during a time when many of us feel trapped– but this is not a time to despair– but a time to be aware, to be smart, to hope, and to take time to look back. Yes, this Passover seder will feel different than most. While we are told to distance, we are used to sharing the beautiful experience of a seder with loved ones, friends, and even strangers. While we talk of the 10 plagues during our respective, and perhaps small, Pesach seders, we will be in the midst of a current plague. What is so frightening about this plague we are currently experiencing? It is said to be…many things, and not other things. It is one thing one day, and another the next. The fact is that we do not know very much about this plague yet. The unknown is as scary as darkness, locusts, boils, or many of the other afflictions described in the Torah. Perhaps we can find some comfort in the age-old Jewish response to the unknown: resilience and courage. 

While being a bit isolated at home, it has become difficult not to think about solitude. If we look back to the story of Pesach in the Book of Exodus, or Shemot, we can find an interesting bit of text:

“…and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you” (Exodus 12:22-23).

According to Rashi’s commentary, G-d said to the people of Israel, “I will direct my eye to see whether you are occupied in obeying my precepts, and then I will spare you.” 

Directly in the Torah, G-d tells the Israelites to stay in their houses. If they do not follow some very specific instructions, they will become victims of a sudden and mysterious demise. Just ponder the phrase, “And none of you shall go out of his house until the morning.” Are we, as moderns, not currently experiencing an extended version of this night? We are wise to remain in our homes, lest we be afflicted with the terror of the modern plague. We hunker down so that we might avoid “the destroyer” setting foot into our own homes and infecting us with disease. We are told to obey the command to socially distance so that the angel of death or the destroyer will pass over our own homes, and spare those whom we love and care so deeply for. 

Most of us know how the rest of the story of Pesach plays out, and many of us will literally play it out with Haggadah in hand during our soon-to-come Pesach seders. The people of Israel follow the commands of G-d, and are eventually led by Moses into the wilderness, and finally (after many years) across the Jordan, and into the promised land. How do we, as Jews, deal with the night before, and how do we look for the light in darkness? Fortunately, we are experts as a people. Remember when Abram (later Abraham) left his land, and faced the unknown? How about the more recent pitch black night of the Holocaust. Pesach Seders were held in secret, and Shabbat candles were lit discreetly, under threat of death, during what was perhaps the longest night in Jewish history. Eventually, Abram became the father of a great nation, and the Jews survived the Shoah in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We are accustomed to night, and we have always been awake to see the light of morning–even when the darkness was so overwhelming that it felt thick and infinite. 

What can we do right now? It can feel easy to talk about the nights of the past–but experiencing a night is vastly different than reading about those gone by with the light of midday sun illuminating our reflection. As the people of Israel were given instructions as to how to remain safe when the angel of destruction was passing through, we have been given instructions in a different way, and through different channels. We have been instructed to stay home (sound familiar?), to wash our hands, to only go out for essentials, and to maintain a safe distance if we encounter others. While these instructions are not necessarily those of G-d, they can still provide us with safety during our current arduous night. I have recently spoken of Rabbi Ishmael, who believed that Heaven had given physicians the power and permission to heal. According to the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, health care is the most important communal service that can be offered to a community (Hilchot De’ot 4:23). If this is true, can we not look to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts during this time of crisis for practical guidance? We can listen, but the unknown is undoubtedly still present and scary. 

It will however, end. According to Rabbi Akiva, G-d brought the people of Israel out of Egypt during the month of Nisan because the weather was right. It was not too hot or too cold. G-d intended for the people to have proper conditions for their upcoming journey. While a Divine plan might not always be clear, clarity does seem to eventually illuminate the darkness.

When the night ended in Egypt, G-d told the people Israel not to forget about what had occurred. “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever” (Exodus 12:14). When this long and uneasy night inevitably ends, we can look to the past in order to face the future. We can remember never to let the lessons we have learned, and will continue to learn, vanish in the sun. When our children and grandchildren ask us about this night, we will tell them how we were frightened, how we felt alone, and then how we stepped out of the darkness with our trademark resilience and courage intact. We can tell them how we listened to instructions, and how we did all we could to keep one another safe. We can tell them of the Heavenly work of healthcare and other amazing workers who helped to sustain us all the way through. And with even a bit of faith in G-d, we can tell anyone who asks that G-d brought us out as He did from Egypt, when the time and “weather” was just right to begin our newest journey. 

Chag Pesach Sameach.

Joshua

Laying in the Field

Image result for sunset over field of bluebonnets painting

In a Talmudic parable, the sages tell us of a time that the great Rabbi Akiva was traveling along the road and approached a town where he decided that he would seek lodging for the night. Not a place or person in the town would give Rabbi Akiva a place to rest his head for the evening, to which he replied to his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva went on his way to spend the night in an open field with a rooster, a donkey, and a candle as his only possessions. In the night, a gust of wind came, and extinguished the candle. Soon after that, a cat approached and ate the rootster. Finally, a lion came upon Rabbi Akiva’s donkey, and devoured the animal. Still, Rabbi Akiva told his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva was now alone with his companions. That night, an army came into the city that had denied him lodging, and took the entirety of its population into captivity. Rabbi Akiva had no candle to give away his location, and no noisy donkey or rooster to make a sound that could be heard by the soldiers. Rabbi Akiva turned to his companions and said, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good’? (B. Ber 60b-61a). 

As we all know, we are living in what seem to be unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus, which we now so intimately know as COVID-19, has taken over many of our minds, and some of our bodies as well. There is no need to sugarcoat the fact that people are suffering, whether it be emotionally, spiritually or physically. Fear of the unknown while sitting in our homes can take over our lives. WIthout our regular physical interactions to ease our minds, it can be a time of great spiritual turmoil for many. What is happening? Why is this happening? What will life be like afterward? Why? If we put ourselves in Rabbi Akiva’s shoes, we are laying in the open field, our candle has blown out, leaving us in complete darkness, and our rooster and donkey have just been eaten by wild animals. This is the time when many do the most questioning. How could G-d let this happen, and what did we do to deserve this? Rabbi Akiva was confident that G-d had a long-term plan, and all of the suffering and hardship that he was prescribed to endure in the short-term, was actually for the best. In what seemed like a dire situation, Rabbi Akiva was actually being protected by G-d. Is this to mean we are not meant to question? As we have talked about before, the word “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle or struggle with G-d. So, it would seem that questioning, wondering, and doubting are all very Jewish ways to handle the situation. If we look closely at Rabbi Akiva’s words, he does not say that everything G-d does is or feels good, but that it is all for good. When the soldiers stormed the town that had denied him, Rabbi Akiva’s macro view of G-d’s good intentions had come to fruition. 

While parables can be quite nice and fitting, they do not always calm our anxieties or questions about G-d. it is quite fathomable that perhaps we cannot quite even begin to imagine G-d, or G-d’s intentions or actions. In fact, G-d is so unknowable to human beings that to even begin to try and understand would be impossible. Remember back to Moses in Exodus 33:18 when he says to G-d, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” In Exodus 33:20, G-d says to Moses, “‘Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see Me and live.’” How can man fathom the unfathomable? My mentor, Rabbi Norman Mendel, would commonly refer to the Shema prayer when people were having difficulty with G-d. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad-Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” Rabbi Mendel would say that perhaps we can interpret “One” to mean “One at a time.” G-d can mean different things to us at various places and points in our lives. Rabbi Jacob Staub likes to imagine G-d as some sort of air that is everywhere, both external and internal to us all. He reminds us that the Hebrew word, “ru’ah,” means both spirit and wind. Perhaps everything is interconnected. Rabbi Staub describes how he asks G-d “What is the invitation in this?” when troubling things occur. The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a time during which we can all ask G-d, no matter our interpretation of The Presence, “What is the invitation in this?”

Are we now invited (or semi-ordered) to stay at home, or to “socially distance?” Is this a time to think about all that we could be doing outside of our own home, and how many of our favorite factory outlets and restaurants are closed? Perhaps we are mourning the suspension of our favorite team’s basketball or hockey games. What about our own conception of “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home? Is this not a time to look at our spouse or partner in the eyes, and share a genuine conversation and laugh without distraction? Have we actually taken a real moment and played with our children enough? Judaism takes place as much in the home (if not more) as it does in a synagogue. We can strive toward a peaceful, communicative, and understanding home during these trying times. We have no choice but to appreciate and surround ourselves with those closest to us, and to work toward a harmonious life within the confines of our own residences. 

Perhaps this is also an invitation for our own planet to begin to heal. As human beings have retreated into their homes, have we not seen a decrease in air pollution in quarantined countries? Will our planet begin to heal and be an example for some of the relationships in our own lives? We can only look away for so long. This is a time to examine our own relationships with our planet, with our souls, and with one another. 

This is also an invitation to appreciate and respect. The doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and so many others who are putting their own health at risk for the healing of others is truly inspiring. The sages of the school of Rabbi Ishmael thought that Heaven had given physicians permission to heal. This inference is based upon Exodus 21:19, which says: “He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (B. Ber 60a). It seems to me that all healthcare workers are doing the work of The Heavens during this pandemic. If we are not healthcare workers, we can refer to Leviticus 19:18, and “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” This “Golden Rule of Judaism” essentially tells us to treat others how we would like to be treated. Staying home seems to be the best way to love our neighbors right now. A phone call, FaceTime, or a Zoom session is showing much more love than a handshake or a hug currently. While the healthcare workers fight to keep sick people alive, we can do our part to keep less people sick. 

On Friday nights, we often recite a prayer responsively which says, “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans” (Mishkan T’Filah p. 55). Most of us have been disturbed, ruffled, and shocked with the current state of the world. Has the greater world become complacent in the face of human and planetary crisis? Have we ourselves become complacent? This is, of course, open to your interpretation and opinion. If G-d does indeed send us messages, this appears to be quite a powerful one. Our job is to take the message or invitation, and do with it what we can in a constructive manner. 

I hope that as we eventually peer and step outside of our houses, we will look up from our phones and greet one another with a gratitude that was perhaps lost before. I hope we never take for granted a pat on the shoulder from a friend, the kissing of a grandchild, or even praying in a shared space. I hope we can hit the reset button and fix some of what had been broken, or allow what was broken to begin to heal itself. 

As the dust settles, perhaps we can all begin to anticipate the beauty that will come from the seemingly broken. We can all look to the day when we will collectively hear Rabbi Akiva’s voice asking, “Did I not tell you that ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good?’” 

In the meantime, I wish all of those suffering r’fuah sh’leimah, a complete healing of the body and spirit. Let our suffering, both physical and mental be the means to a beautiful and good new beginning. For now, let us enjoy laying in the open field.

Shalom.

Joshua

A Calf and COVID-19

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The parshah for this week comes at a time when illness, anxiety, and doubt are clouding the minds of most. The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 has begun its spread in the United States, and in our very own state. It has even touched our town. Parshah Ki Tisa contains what I would consider one of the most famous descriptions of mass hysteria and panic that we have on record today. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and “…delayed to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1). According to Hertz, The Rabbis have often claimed that Moses told the people Israel that he would be atop Mount Sinai for forty days. In actuality, Moses meant that he would descend from Sinai after spending the entirety of 40 days on the mount. On that fortieth day, the people of Israel became collectively alarmed. Their leader Moses, who was to guide them, was assumed dead or missing. Without Moses to forge the path, the people became anxiety-ridden, and in what appeared to be panic, demanded that a tangible god be made evident. Aaron was left in charge of the people Israel in Moses’ absence, and was put in a difficult situation. 

“‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us.” (Exodus 32:1) said the Israelites to Aaron. According to Torah, Aaron was the person who actually took the gold of the people and sculpted it into the infamous Golden Calf, which the Israelites began to worship. If one is to read the Torah in a cursory manner, it might seem as if Aaron, such an honorable man, was strangely complicit in this idolatrous act. According to Midrash Aggadah, and a closer look at the Torah’s text, Aaron was likely looking to halt this idol-building by the Israelites. Aaron said to the people “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me’” (Exodus 32:2). Aggadah says that Aaron thought this request would go unheeded, as people were likely to balk at the idea of giving up the gold in their own ears. To Aaron’s amazement, the people responded to his request for gold expeditiously and in large amounts. The people literally broke the golden rings that were in their ears to provide Aaron with material for idol-building.Talmudic Rabbi Jeremiah said that upon his receipt of the gold from the Israeli people, and prior to building the golden calf, Aaron turned toward G-d and said, “..it is against my will that I am about to do this.” According to The Rabbis, the fickle nature of humankind was on display here. The same people who gave their gold and silver to the Sanctuary were so quick to give this same material for idolatrous reasons. All of this occurred just weeks after G-d told the people “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image” (Exodus 20:4). 

Yes, Moses does eventually descend from Sinai, becomes very angry, breaks the tablets in his hands, and absolutely destroys the golden calf. At this point in the Parshah for the week, we might be compelled to ask why. Why did the Israelites so quickly turn anxiety and fear into full-blown panic and hysterical dancing at a bovine sculpture? If we look at this issue in the context of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, there is a psychology that underlies this type of behavior. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, claims that buying many things during a time of crisis gives people some sense of control. If you have been paying any attention to the news, you are likely aware that it is close to impossible in some places to find toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial cleaners. People want to feel that they have some control in what seems like an unpredictable world. Moses had led the people of Israel out of the horrors of Egypt, and many had likely hung on his word with bated breath. When he behaved in an unexpected manner, people “panic-bought” a golden calf. Yes, the money all went to Aaron, not to Target or Costco, but the psychology is similar. Throw your money at something to ease your anxiety. If I am stocked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, perhaps I will be OK and make it through these very uncertain times. If I throw all of my gold at the building of an idol, I will have something tangible to pray to, and my anxiety will reduce. 

If we can take anything away from this discussion, we must remember that Moses returned to the people of Israel, and G-d was always there. What kind of damage do we do when in a panic? Yes, the reality of a pandemic is very scary, as is the idea that our consistent “Moses” has disappeared. We all tend to seek comfort in tangibility. Sometimes we buy toilet paper, and sometimes we buy a golden calf to dance around. We must remember that times have been uncertain before, and G-d has never left. Aaron says “Unto Thee I lift up my eyes, O Thou that art enthroned in the heavens” (Ps. 123:1). Mishkan T’filah tells us on page 57 that, “when anxiety makes us tremble…we look inward for the answer to our prayers. There may we find You…” 
During this uncertain time, I would like to say: “Baruch atah Adonai, asher b’yado nefesh kol chai v’ruach kol b’sar ish” Praised are you, Adonai, whose hands hold the soul of every living creature. Also, the Talmud tells us, “Whoever makes light of the washing of his hands will be uprooted from the world” (Sot. 4b). So, remember to wash those hands, keep panic at bay, and remember that building a golden calf in panic will not resolve our anxieties. Look upward and inward for peace.

Shalom

-Joshua

Hineini! “Here I am!”

So, I know it has been a minute since I have posted on here, but as you can see from the above family picture, we have a new little lady on the way, and life has been a bit hectic. However, I have been writing some Divrei Torah that I would like to share. These upcoming posts might be a bit more formal and “academic” than some of my former posts, but this is where I am at on my journey right now, so I appreciate the readership!

The first post will be from Parshah Beshalach, which was the Parshah only a couple of weeks ago. I will then post some thoughts on Parshah Yitro (last week’s portion), and then go from there.

I have received some feedback about the wish to contact me. If you wish to reach out, please feel free to e-mail me at joshgraymusic@gmail.com and I will answer you as soon as possible. Any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for topics are welcome.

I have missed all of you very much, and I look forward to getting back to sharing with you.

“In our very own Reform Siddur, Mishkan T’Filah, page 39 tells us, “That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.” What is the promise that the Jewish people have sojourned through countless wildernesses, both literal and figurative, for? Is it simply the literal nation of Israel, or could it also be the promise of better moments; todays and tomorrows, if we strive to live our lives with a bit of hope and song in our hearts? We are called to remember the tribulations and sacrifices of those who came before us, and to enjoy the beautiful song-filled moments as they occur.

In this week’s Parshah, Beshalach, G-d has finally led the Israelites out of Egypt, beginning the long trek toward the promised land of Canaan. G-d did not direct the children of Israel to take the easiest and most direct route, however. Instead of passing directly through the land of the Philistines, the Israelites were instructed by G-d to wander toward the Red Sea and through the wilderness. According to Hertz’s commentary, if the people of Israel had passed through the land of the Philistines, they could have arrived in Canaan in only 11 days. As many of us know, the roundabout way took 40 years; with many of these years being quite trying.

The Jewish people have historically been tried and tested, but we have always survived and endured. Even after years of enslavement, Torah tells us that, “The children of Israel went out with a high hand” (Ex. 14:8). In other words, The Jews left Egypt after centuries of enslavement with an aura of fearless confidence in spite of less-than-desirable circumstances. The Jews were delivered from Egypt, and guided along an indirect path, even finding themselves between a charging army of 600 chariots, and a vast Sea of Reeds. While many people were questioning G-d while standing at the shore of the sea, “Moses stretched forth his hand…” (Ex. 14:27) and the Jews crossed on dry land.

The Jews crossed the Sea and immediately sang with joy the “Song at the Red Sea,” or “The Song.” We still sing part of that song, “Mi Chamochah,” on every Erev Shabbat to this day, which ends with the phrase “Adonai Yimloch L’olam Vaed,” or “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” According to the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, and Rabbi Meir specifically, every child of Israel sang The Song after crossing, including the fetuses that were still in their mother’s wombs. Even those who were not yet born were able to sense the Divine Presence of the moment. It is vital that we take time to sing the joy that is in our hearts, as song can be so powerful, and can often convey what the spoken word struggles to communicate. In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva claims that the controversial scriptural book “Song of Songs,” authored by King Solomon, is the “holy of holies.” Singing and rejoicing enriches moments.

It is also important that we remember that the victory of Israel was not complete, due to the suffering that the Egyptians endured. A medieval rabbi reminds us that during the Pesach Seder, when a drop of wine is removed from the cup at the mention of each plague, we are reminding the People Israel that our own cup of joy cannot be entirely full while others suffer (Hertz, p. 270). It is our responsibility as modern Jews to remember the role of the Egyptians. Beshalach teaches us how G-d showed His nature by sheltering the righteous Israelites and destroying the unrighteous Egyptians. G-d used the hardened heart of the Pharaoh to show the world that a righteous G-d indeed exists.

When the Jews continued to journey into the wilderness, thirst and hunger eventually set in, and many still questioned G-d’s will, even after witnessing the miracle at the Red Sea. After deliverance from Egypt, an oceanic miracle of vast proportions, and a song of utmost joy, the work was still not done—just as the journey of the Jew is never complete. We are a people who must rely on resilience, and embrace taking on new challenges, often avoiding the easiest and most direct path. The destination is often the journey, and we can remember to sing when we feel joy, but never take pleasure in the suffering of others. We can strive to live our own lives with an eye toward improving the future of our world and people, while never forgetting our past, and those who came before us. The path will not always be smooth and clear, but the path, no matter how unsteady, is our promise as Jews. As our own Mishkan T’Filah reminds us, “The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 45).  

May we all be blessed to sing and rejoice when the heart calls for it, remember with solemnity and respect when we must, and continue wandering through the wilderness of our modern world with a sense of purpose, and a “high hand” of fearless confidence that is all our own.”

Shalom,

Joshua

A Moment Ago

27 January 1945
27 January 2020

This did not happen 7 decades and 5 years ago.
This happened yesterday.

No.
This happened a moment ago.

6 million of us.
Not them.
Us.
6 million of our children.
Children who were born prior to us.
Our children because we care for them.
We care for their legacy.
We cannot let their memories fade with half a breath.

How can one forget the horrors of a moment ago?

6 million children.
Children of ours and His or Hers.
6 million flames extinguished by evil fire.
Never slowly burning.
Blown out wildly by beasts.

It happened here.
It did not happen there.
Our children wept, scratched, clawed, gasped for final breaths.
Our children died.

How can we move on?
Forget?
Forgive, even?

This did not happen 7 decades and 5 years ago.
This happened behind my heel.
Where my steps just were.

This was now.

The tears cannot dry.
The scars cannot heal.
The flowers cannot bloom.
The sun cannot rise.

The source of water still flows freely.
The wounds are fresh from today.
A child’s clothes cover the flower beds.
It is still night.

This happened a moment ago.

A Beard Discussion

I have a beard right now. So, facial hair always becomes a big deal for me. For some reason, whenever I begin to grow anything that starts to resemble a beard, a myriad of emotions and opinions get involved. My wife tends to like when I have a beard, and would also prefer that I grow my hair as long as it was when I was in my 20’s. She would like to see me adorned with a beard and a “man bun.” My mother claims that my face is too nice to be covered up with a beard, and that it is just a bad idea in general. She does like it when my hair is “longer” though…but not too long…but not short. Also, some facial hair is OK, but just not too much…She can explain. Honestly, sometimes I just forget to shave, and the beard begins to happen, and then I see how long I can go before the itchiness and commentary begins to become too troublesome. I think that a lot of the strong emotions tied to my facial hair stem from the fact that I suddenly began to grow a beard at the age of 27. As soon as my son was born under traumatic circumstances (that more serious post will surely come at some point), I gained the ability to grow a beard. I was literally aged overnight. But, I digress.

Like all things on this blog, let’s look at this Jewishly:

According to Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the corners on your head, or destroy the corners of your beard.” 

It seems that many observant Jewish men have avoided shaving due to the interpretation of this line from Torah, and many let their beards grow long and free. Apparently, the scholarly Talmudic Rabbis also considered beards to be very beautiful on men, and there actually exists a list of rabbis whose beauty is comparable to the (bearded) Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I learned that there was a very physically attractive rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan, who was excluded from this chic list due to the simple fact that he did not have a beard! 

This beardly conversation extends beyond Judaism as well. Let’s turn our attention to 11-year-old Grace Bedell. In 1860, future president Abraham Lincoln’s face was as smooth as mine was when I was a teen. Grace wrote Lincoln a letter letting him know that he needed some “whiskers,” as his face was “too thin,” and “all the ladies like whiskers.” She assured Lincoln that he would certainly be elected president were he to simply grow a beard. Miss Bedell’s words did not go unheeded by future president Lincoln, who wrote her back within four days, and then proceeded to begin growing out those trademark whiskers. The rest, as they say, is history. Was Grace Bedell ultimately responsible for the election of a president who is now famous for his beard? Well, she obviously didn’t hurt his chances. 

I read a bit about Kabbalistic Rabbi Issac Luria, more widely known as Ari. It has been said that he considered the facial hair to be so holy that he was reluctant to even touch his own face for fear of some hairs falling out of his own beard. That is certainly some dedication to a holy beard. 

My beard is currently at a level of thickness and length that it has not achieved in quite some time, and perhaps there is some level of semi-conscious Jewishness to my shaving ambivalence. 

It seems to me, based on my quick research, that if I continue to let the facial hair run free, the worst case scenarios that could befall me would be: (1) I become a world leader, or (2) I do not exclude myself from a place on a Talmudic list of beautiful rabbis. 

I’ll go with Leviticus and Grace for now. 

Shabbat Shalom if I don’t see you.

-Joshua