Saturday, April 28, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Holy!)

What does it mean to be holy? Well if you were to ask the High Priest in the first of this week's DDTorah portion, he would probably discuss the holiest of ceremonies, the Yom Kippur Avodah in which he enters the presence of the Glory of God, humbling himself before the Divine Presence of the Shechinah. Is the Kohen Gadol the only one who can be holy? No! The next torah portion, Kedoshim says that "you (plural) shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy!" I posed the question to my class this week of how to be holy and they gave answers such as tzedekah, following mitzvot, studying/learning/reading the Torah. The Torah likes these examples and adds things that are intuitive, such as not stealing, lying, bearing false witness, honoring parents, basically a restatement of the Decalogue, loving your fellow as yourself ("The Golden Rule"). Some good-natured ones you might not think of, such as not putting a stumbling-block before the blind nor cursing the deaf, and being equitable to the widow, the orphan, and the poor, the landless Levite, leaving the corners and gleanings of your field for those unfortunate. And then the fun illogical ones, not mixing wool and linen (shatnez), not grafting fruits nor mixing crops in the same field (kilayim). Whatever their reason, these too are considered part of the Holiness Code.

Holiness IS achievable and your instructions are clearly given. Be a good person, a holy person. The rest, my holy friend, is just commentary.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Tazria/Metzora (the one about rashes and bodily functions)

I have to be quick this week.

Firstly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the events of the past week in Virginia. We know that humanity can descend into darkness and evil. Few of us know this as firsthand as Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor. He was an Israeli citizen and a professor at Virginia Tech. When the gunman was coming toward his classroom, he blocked the door with his body so his students could escape from the window, himself getting killed. On Yom HaShoah V'HaGvurah, Rememberance Day for the Holocaust and the Heroes, he was both a survivor and a heroic martyr. ZT"L.

On an entirely different note, this week we read two Torah portions about matters of the body. Circumcision will be for boys on the eighth day of life. Why the eighth day? Tradition states that Isaac was circumcised on his eighth day of life and this commandment was previously mentioned in Genesis 17:12. We should be thankful that we weren't commanded to be circumcised when Ishmael was, at age 13, or Abraham at the ripe old age of 99.

The rest of the two parshiot deal with purity and impurity. Women have certain periods... well, periods that they are considered ritually unclean and we derive the laws of Niddah. Births of boys and girls demand sacrifices for impurity (not observed today). We also have the fun laws of Tzaras, commonly mistakenly translated as leprosy. It is a disease that can affect people, clothing, and houses. There really isn't much to say on the topic, but the most famous example of the Metzora, a person afflicted with this, is Miriam, Moses' sister. She speaks ill of her sister in law, Tziporah, Moses' wife and God afflicts her with Tzaras. The word מצורע (metzora) might be a contraction ofמוציא שם רע (motzi shem ra), a slanderer. Tzaras seems to affect people, clothing, and homes due to something bad they did. It shouldn't be looked at as a curse but rather as a sign that Teshuva, repentance must be done for something. Today, without tzaras we have no such indicator that we did something wrong. Tzaras seems to have been replaced with Tzuras, but that's another story.

Shabbat Shalom,

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Ninth Plague revisited

There have been rolling blackouts throughout the San Fernando Valley, at least from Hollywood to Encino (the pace of my 20 mile, 7.5 hour-long walk, round trip, yesterday). Actually over 100,000 homes were without electricity in a much greater area. From 8 PM last night to 3:45 AM this morning, Encino was in the dark (at least the north side of Ventura Blvd). It is pretty cool davening maariv by candlelight and kind of annoying going to the bathroom with a flashlight (I think the last time I did the latter was almost three years ago on a camping trip in Point Mugu; the former was during Bedikat Chametz 12 days ago. The blackouts occurred throughout the day yesterday. I know this because on my walk I noticed many of the traffic lights were out; one even went out while I was crossing. Everything by candlelight, how romantic!

So this was quite the walk I have been walking a lot over the past couple of months. I lost a significant amount of weight over the past 4.5 months, 70 lbs in the first 3.5 months. During Pesach, during a hiatus from the diet I gained 10 lbs but have since lost most of it just in the past couple of days. That's what I do with the little free time I have nowadays: I walk whenever I can.

I'm going to stop it here because I need to get ready for Shabbos. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 13, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shemini (That ain't kosher!)

This Torah portion talks about Kashrut, not just food kashrut but spiritual kashrut. In the beginning, they finish the lengthy miluim, (inauguration of the tabernacle; modern usage means Israeli Army Reserves which men are called up 45 days each year until the age of 40) in which they install Aaron and his sons as the priests, transitioning from Moses' stewardship of the sacrificial service. Here we come to what I have dubbed spiritual Kashrut and one of the most (read: only) interesting events in the Book of Leviticus, as well as one of the few narrative proses in the book.

The this is the account of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron. The exact circumstances of their deaths are clouded in mystery, appropriate to the the cloud of incense which mists the Holy of Holies in which they died. There are many legends of what happened, (I am not equipped to look them up, due in part to the blackout of power throughout the San Fernando Valley). Many assume that they were drunk when they offered up whatever they did as the first mitzvah that God commands after their death is that a priest is not to DUI (Duchan Under the Influence... actually it just says don't go into the Tent of Meeting, so when they are performing the Avodah of the Temple), they should never appear before God drunk. This is interesting considering the importance of alcohol in Judaism.

What were Nadav and Avihu's intentions? It seems to me that they were zealously wanting to give more to God. The ceremony was concluded and the festivities were in full swing and it seems that Nadav and Avihu, probably drunk, wanted to do more for God and offered up additional sacrifices.
A fire went out from God and consumed them (literally "ate them") and they died before the Lord.
Moses proceeds to forward on the word of God to Aaron:
Through them that are close to me I will be sanctified and before all the people I will be glorified.
This is interesting, but even more interesting is Aaron's response, or lack thereof:
And Aaron was silent.
And then we have the first example of Havdalah, separating between the holy and the profane, between the pure and the impure, both originally lines in the actual Havdalah service we say at the conclusion of Shabbat.

And then the edible kashrut forms the second act in this torah portion, continuing the theme of Havdalah. Animals were classified as pure and impure even back in the time of Noah as he loaded the ark and later sacrificed animals to God. Now animals are officially classified by name. Land mammals must have split hooves AND chew their cud to be kosher, mentioning specifically the camel and the pig as non-kosher due to their only fulfilling one of the two criteria. Almost all animals that chew their cud have split hooves and almost all animals that have split hooves chew their cud, and a Venn diagram would indicate as such, with the pig and camel families being rare exceptions excluded from the overlap. Fins and Scales are the criteria for kosher sealife, which immediately excludes shellfish and sea-mammals. Most fish are kosher but some run into special problems, such as swordfish and sturgeon which, while having fins and scales, lose their scales during their lifetime. Non-kosher birds are listed and, though not officially mentioned in the text, these birds all seem to be birds of prey. And then we come to the most mysterious category: insects. Certain grasshoppers and locusts are actually kosher (and pareve!) but Ashkenazic and most Sephardic Jews do not eat any insects, though some Yemenites (ever the guardians of Jewish tradition and language) plucked them out of the air during a "locust plague" in Israel a few years ago. Reptiles are all treif. There is a lot more in terms of purity and impurity but that is for another time. Another Havdalah statement and this portion is finished!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Don't PASSOVER these great savings opportunities.

Actually, I don't think the title has anything to do with the article, except that there is the word "Passover" in it. It just sounds like a great way to advertise a seasonal sale. In fact, I probably saw a sale or two advertised as thus and it just got implanted into my head...

As for the sedarim, I was imposed with a time limit of one hour for the first half (ie: from Kadesh to Shulchan Orech). The Four Sons thing worked out great and led to great discussion. I took around 40 minutes to get through the entire first half to Motzi Matzah; By far the fastest I've ever gotten through part 1 (well, until the second night when we were eating in 25 minutes). I didn't want to go that quickly, but the idea was somehow implanted in certain seder participants that a quick seder was the way to go. Oh well... I was told it was the best seder ever. That's got to count for something. Right

On the diet side, though I have lost 70 lbs in 3.5 months, an amazing feat, this past month I have lost very little. I decided to take a hiatus from the diet for the duration of pesach. Dieting during Pesach would be tantamount to suicide. No soy, no electrolytes, no diet shakes, diet bars, soy/seitan/portobello jerky. However lifting it during passover is also suicide. You crash and burn pretty quickly unbridaled on the Festival of Freedom. Oh well, I guess diet's back on sorta...

A Gut Shabbos und a Zissen Pesach,

Monday, April 02, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Pesach (aka Passover) (Redemption: Past, Present, Future)

This year I thought I would lead my first seder a little differently than usual. First of all, I'm replacing Manischwitz Malaga with a Apertif-Semi Dry-Dry-Dessert wine menu (this is gonna be good). My crowd this year has little patience for pomp and circumstance so I decided to eliminate the Arami Oved Avi stuff and instead talk about why Passover is so pertinent today. If you are at my seder tomorrow night I suggest not reading this. Drawing largely on the paper I wrote a few years ago and posted as my Passover Dvar Torah last year (and which I still haven't reread since I originally wrote it two years ago, though I really should), I plan on discussing the importance of the seder experience to our own lives. People get easily bored at sedarim, perhaps this is because they cannot see themselves identifying with the rites involved. But that is the ikar, the most important essense of the seder! "In every generation one must consider if they themselves have left Egypt!" The Passover Seder is more observed than Yom Kippur or Hanukkah rituals. Perhaps the only thing that is more popular is circumcision, but remember that that can only apply to less than half of the Jewish population.

The Rabbis of the Mishnah, in their wisdom, wrote Vehi Sheamda and realized that this must apply to their time. How could they have known that their words would even ring more true, amplified every generation following them for over 2000 years. Just as it stood for our ancestors, so too for us: That not only one [Pharaoh] has tried to stand against us to annihilate us, rather in every generation they try to annihilate us, but the Holy One blessed be He saves us from their grasp. We experienced Pharaoh in Hitler in the Holocaust and I fear many Pharaohs are conspiring against the Jewish people even in our own times, for example, Mahmud Ahmadinijad and Hassan Nasrallah. And yet through all of this God has not let his chosen nation perish. This is why we give thanks to God on this Leil Shimurim, the evening which the Torah says not only was a night of special protection in Egypt 3319 years ago, but forever shall be a night where God especially protects the Jews.

And in Ha Lachma we say that "today we are slaves". But wait, I'm reclining at a table and I seem pretty free! There is a line that disturbs me as the penultimate line of Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals, "I was young and I grew old and I never saw a righteous man abandoned nor his children begging for bread". Having lived in Jerusalem I can say that this is not true. However I think this is an ideal for which we are meant to strive for. We cannot always count on a supernatural miracle. True, I may actually see righteous people reduced to panhandling, but God demands that I do something about it. I might not be a slave, but there are people who are slaves in the world. An ethical kashrut for fair work wages might be in order.

My focus this sedernakht will be on the four son... er... four children. I have compiled images from many haggadot from over 500 years and will have my participants analyze specific images. I present one which is clear cut, featuring the Marx Bros. and another which is ambiguous to which of the children each represents (each child is represented by a different book). There is so much room for discussion beyond the droll "who's feeling especially wicked tonight?" or "if I get asked to read the wise son one more time I'm gonna make sure they consider me the wicked one in the future". We know it, we've done it forever. We know what all of them represent. When you compare the son who doesn't know how to ask to a chassid who won't ask because he unquestionably accepts everything he learns as God's word -- Now you've got my attention!

Chag Kasher V'Sameach,