Friday, April 24, 2015

Random Musing Before ShabbatTazria-Metzora 5775–Singing a Song of Leprosy Again

Those of you who know me well know that I have a penchant for working to redeem the so-called irredeemable texts. These misogynist, bloody, and questionably unethical texts abound in our sacred literature.

In my musing for this parasha in 5758 (1997-1998,) I wrote in part:

"Childbirth. Leprosy. Male Discharges. Menstruation. OY! If nothing else, I'll say this-our ancestors did take on some common, everyday issues. The way they approached them may seem alien and strange to us, but surely it is a sign of a healthy society that they could talk about these things. Imagine the outcry today if you wanted to publicly talk about these issues. Although in recent decades our society has loosened up somewhat, we still have a lot of taboos against discussing things like sex, bodily functions, etc. openly and publicly. So while we may view these rituals and proscriptions in Tazria-Metzora with disdain and confusion, I ask - who is the healthier society: the one in which a mother talks to her daughter about "their friend" coming to visit them each month, or the one in which subjects like menstruation, discharges and leprosy are dealt with openly?"

Writing in 5762 (2001-2002) I said:

So I find it somewhat ironic that I, who has always openly taught the text to even the youngest students as straightforwardly as possible suddenly found myself unsure how to address the contents of Tazria-Metzora with students this week.

This led to a conversation with a friend about writing songs for Jewish occasions that no one particularly wants to sing about, like divorce, circumcision, agunah, pidyon haben, the assorted killing and ritual sacrifices in the text, etc. And this conversation ultimately led back to a discussion of songs about difficult texts in the Torah like Tazria-Metzora. (Difficult, that is, when weighed on the modern scale of relevancy to contemporary life. Of course, as I have often argued, this may not be the best scale to use.)

So we both played around with a simplistic way of writing a quick parody song about Tazria-Metzora suitable for youngsters and tweens.

We started with this version:

(All sung to the tune of "Sing a Song of Sixpence")

Sing a song of leprosy, Illness in the air.
Sing a song of leprosy, Spots are everywhere. Sing a song of leprosy, Here the people cry:
"What did I say that's so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?"

Well, would these kids understand what leprosy is without an explanation more graphic than I wished to use? So we tried again:

Tazria, Metzora Illness in the air.
On the skin and on house walls Lesions everywhere.
Tazria, Metzora Here the people cry:
What did I say that's so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?"

Now that's ALMOST an actually usable song! But again, will the students know what a lesion is? So we prettied it up a bit more:

Tazria, Metzora Sickness of the spirit. On the skin and on house walls Marks that do reveal it. Tazria, Metzora Tell the people this: 'Twas something that they said or did That brought them all this tzuris!

Well, ALMOST, we thought. But tzuris might not be in their vocabulary. So once again we edit:

Tazria, Metzora Spiritual rot
On the skin and on house walls Look what we have got
Tazria, Metzora Let the people know
'Twas something that they said or did makes spots as white as snow!

Hmm. That one was perhaps a step backwards. But it does convey the essential message we're trying to get across here-that one interpretation is that tzara'at is really a physical manifestation of inner problems of faith, behavior, lashon hara, self-discomfort with one's behavior, etc.

We finally settled on this version which we used:

Tazria, Metzora, Sickness of the spirit.
On the skin and on house walls, White spots do reveal it.
Tazria, Metzora, Hear the people cry:
What did I say that's so bad? And why ME, G”d, oh why?

Now, this was a fun exercise. But I'm ignoring the essential question. Why is it that I feel I have to couch the reality of parashiot Tazria-Metzora in this way? Is there some reason I feel uncomfortable just saying "this parasha talks about menstruation and childbirth, and how they render a woman unclean for a time, the rituals involved when people developed some kind of odd eruption on their skin, or when houses developed similar infections on their walls, and the ritual for rendering the people and houses clean again."

Is it locale? At the day school where I taught last year (2000-2001), was I more willing to be frank and open, believing the students could handle it because of their constant exposure to the text? Do I fear the student in my current (2001-2002) Reform supplemental school setting knows less and can therefore handle less? I'd like to think that's not the case, as I had quite a mix of students from different movements at the day school. So whence my sensitivity?

Here I am, thirteen years later. I’ve been a director and/or taught at supplemental schools in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations, JCCs, independent congregations, and independent day schools, and now I find myself at a Schechter day school. My disdain for pediatric Judaism, which avoids the difficult (and potentially irredeemable) material remains and, if anything, is stronger. It is tempered, however, by more experience. The line between what a student experiences as “gross!” and what becomes potentially disturbing is rarely clear, and it varies not just between age and grade levels, but between individual students in the same grade or of the same age. And yes, just over the past decade the has been a perceptible, generalized change. Students have greater exposure to (or at least knowledge of) life’s grittiness at earlier and earlier ages. Fortunately, young students today seem generally more accepting of differences between people, are more welcoming and supportive of classmates who are different in some way. Now, they ask questions like “were the children of lepers allowed to go to school with all the other kids?” and they struggle to understand how lepers and others with visible signs of disease were segregated. Why just this morning I overhead some young elementary age students discussing circumcision, demonstrating they had at least a passing understanding of the concept (and they were not discussing it in a silly, giggly way, but as part of a serious conversation.)

I still don’t know the secret to teaching earthy Torah in age-appropriate ways. Some say we wait until the questions are asked and then we find a way to answer them honestly and as candidly as we can. However, if we don’t create an environment where that is bound to happen, at what point are we obligated to broach the subject? If we sanitize everything, our students will never develop the antibodies to resist the more troubling stuff when they encounter it.

The “Auntie Mame” in me wants to expose every child, at every age, to everything. I suppose I rely on the many Mr. Babcocks around me to keep me in check. Yet we all know how the story of “Auntie Mame” ends and she gets more young minds to expose to life’s banquet so they won’t be one of the suckers starving to death.

I still have no quick and easy answers. As I wrote thirteen years ago, perhaps I'll delve into the text some more and see if I can find some. Because if I don't identify and treat whatever it is that's nagging at me about how I'm teaching these parashiyot this year, then I might wind up with my own tzara'at.

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to try and prevent that. May you find the time for your own catharsis and avoid your external manifestations of your self-discomfort!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Tazria-M'tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 - We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy

Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5774 - Fifty Fifty
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 - It's Good To Be the King
Tazria 5768 - Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven...
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot

Metzora 5774 - Go With the Flow
Metzora 5771 - Afflict This!
Metzora 5768 - Human Nature
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News

Friday, April 17, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sh’mini 5775- Vayyidom Aharon (Calm In a Crisis Revisited)

Sandwiched quietly between descriptions of sacrificial rituals and the dietary laws, following that awful incident-the toasting of Nadav and Avihu, those crispy critters about whom I have written  great deal over the years, we find some great examples of how to handle a crisis. It's not surprising that the two individuals who play out these issues are children of the same woman-Yocheved. But this time, it's the one who isn't often portrayed in a positive light that shows his true mettle.

Let's give ourselves some context. Proper offerings have been made. Then two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu offer up some "alien fire" upon the altar, and in return, are promptly burnt to a crisp by G”d.

But here was poor Aaron, with two dead sons, and what does Moshe say to him? An odd utterance that perhaps suggest the punishment was justified.


    וַיֹאמֶר מֹשֶה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן הוּא אֲשֶר־דִבֶר יְהוָה׀ לֵאמֹר בִקְרֹבַי אֶקָדֵשׁ וְעַל־פְנֵי כָל־הָעָם אֶכָבֵד וַיִדֹם אַהֲרֹֽן

Then Moses said to Aarm, “This is what the L”rd meany when He (sic) said: Through those near to me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.

Obviously, made of stern stuff (at least externally) Aharon appears, in some interpretations, to accept G”d's stern justice. (I’ll leave discussions of why what happened to Nadav and Avihu happened to all the other musings I’ve written on the topic.)

Moshe instructs the Levites to remove the charred bodies. Then he tells Aharon, Eleazar, and Ithamar (the two remaining sons of Aharon) to not appear to be in mourning by mussing up their hair and rending their clothes. Act as if nothing has happened, lest they die too, and make G”d angry enough to threaten the whole community. WTF? To me, this gives the appearance of even Moshe thinking to himself WTF just happened-why did G”d zap Nadav and Avihu?

As if in answer to Moshe’s unspoken WTF, G”d says to Aharon that they should not drink any wine or intoxicant before entering the Tent of Meeting. (It is from this that most commentators conclude that being a bit tipsy led Nadav and Avihu to offer alien fire and get barbequed. I still it’s a stretch, and to this day, I think WTF is still the proper reaction to what happened to our two crispy critters.)

G”d doesn't come right out and say that perhaps Nadav and Avihu got a little to enthused and were imbibing a bit too much. Aharon could have protested, but he didn't. Many fathers might have turned to G”d and said "hey, my boys are good boys. They weren't drinking to much, they just got a little over eager. And for that you had to fry them?" Aaron had every right to be upset with G”d. Perhaps he was. But Aaron realized that little might be served by being publicly upset. And, after all, even after the golden calf thing, and even after Nadav and Avihu, G”d was still charging Aaron with the important task of high priest, and the responsibility of teaching G”d's laws to the people.

Immediately then, Moshe turns back to the business at hand of assuring all the sacrifices are done properly. Moshe asks Aharon and his two remaining sons to continue with the appropriate sacrificial rituals. Not particularly sensitive of Moshe, was it? But Aharon and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, do as Moshe asks, and as G”d requires of them. They fulfill their obligations. Perhaps they were too in shock to do otherwise?

I don't think, however, that Aaron was frightened of what G”d might do to him. That was not Aharon's motivation to be so quiescent. He had great responsibilities-to G”d, to his brother Moshe, to the people, and to his two remaining sons. That was his motivation. He proves his dedication to G”d and to the people, and even to his brother, by continuing to perform his duties.

But then Moshe, obviously given to moods, and perhaps a bit anal about making sure G”d's requirements get met, steps over the line. Moshe's anger has led him to an error regarding the laws of sacrifice. Moshe, at least showing Aaron some sensitivity, does not confront Aharon, but rather Eleazar and Ithamar with the question of the goat of sin offering. (Not that Eleazar and Ithamar weren't traumatized by what had just happened to their brothers, but at least Moshe had the common decency not to take this matter up with a grieving father.) And Moshe became angry at Eleazar and Ithamar when he learned that the goat of sin offering was not properly eaten by Aharon and his sons within the confines of the holy areas. Eleazar and Ithamar show great restraint at not correcting their uncle. But this must have been too much for Aaron to bear-how could his own brother be hounding Eleazar and Ithamar, who had just lost their two brothers, about this.

But does Aharon get angry or rageful or mad? No. He calmly explains to his brother Moshe that he had make a mistake in interpreting the laws of sacrifice, and that he and his sons, as they were in mourning, should not have consumed the goat of the sin offering. In his agitated state, Moshe could easily have argued with Aharon. But Moshe saw that Aaron was right, and the situation was defused.

The story ends there, and the parasha goes on to the dietary laws. So we don't really know how things played out. But with Aharon's calm demeanor, and Moshe's willingness to admit an error, a situation fraught with potential for trouble was resolved relatively peacefully.

Aharon showed great poise here. Oh, in modern pop psychology terms one might say Aaron was simply stuffing it, and it might have to be dealt with later. But, all in all, for a man who had just lost two sons, Aharon managed to stay pretty calm. He hadn't shut himself off from the world, either-for he was alert enough to notice Moshe's error. Moshe, too, showed the courage to admit he was wrong.

Would that we were all so capable to working through a crisis as well as these two brothers did.

Now, I'll be the first to admit there are also many troubling elements to this whole story. But both Aharon and Moshe ultimately showed mature behavior. And, this time around, I'll focus on those. Maybe next time around I'll wonder why Moshe got so upset, why Aharon so willingly went on with his duties without question, why G”d zapped Nadav and Avihu in the first place, etc. At one time, I wanted to leave it at Aharon's calm demeanor and devotion to G”d and duty, and Moshe's readiness to admit a mistake. Good lessons for all of us. Today, I’m not as sure of the source of, or the value of, Aharon’s silence. Why did not Aharon rage, rage, against the dying of the light?

Then again, let us think about another time we see the root dalet-mem-mem, meaning silent, used. It is when we reas of the “kol d’mamah dakah” the still small voice. Perhaps Aharon;s silence was to enable him to try and hear G”d, and perhaps from this to understand why this tragedy had befallen his family. Yeah, I’m good with that. For now. who knows about the next time I revisit this story.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Sh'mini 5774 - Indubitably Delicious
Sh'mini 5772 - Collect Call
Sh'mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh'mini 5770 - Don't Eat That, It's Not Kosher
Sh'mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh'mini 5767-Don't Be a Stork
Sh'mini 5766-Palmwalkers
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

Friday, April 10, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–April 11, 2015-Cop Out

Yep, that’s what this is. It’s a cop out. I’m finding yet another excuse to not write a new musing for this Shabbat. Last week it was Pesakh and my 60th birthday. This week it’s the question of the variation in practice that leads to different things being read at different synagogues, depending upon whether or not they are observing 8 days of Pesakh. Even though, if we go with Sh’mini, it’s one of my favorite parshiyot, because, as you know, it contains my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu, I’m gonna take a pass and let what I’ve written before stand. So here’s a heapin’ helpin’ of variously appropriate musings no matter what your personal practice for this Shabbat is.


Pesach 8th Day 5772 - The Bread of Freedom
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis

Sh'mini 5774 - Indubitably Delicious
Sh'mini 5772 - Collect Call
Sh'mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All
Sh'mini 5770 - Don't Eat That, It's Not Kosher
Sh'mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh'mini 5767-Don't Be a Stork
Sh'mini 5766-Palmwalkers
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out