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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Tazria/Metzora)

It is so easy – and so tempting – to draw simple conclusions from our Torah text. For instance, the rabbis have always connected tzara’at, the scaly skin disease in this week’s Torah portion, with gossip. They have suggested that the consequence for speaking ill of someone else is to be isolated from the rest of the camp while healing. On the surface, this makes sense: say bad things, get a physical mark that shows you’ve been bad, and then have a “time out” so you will stop saying bad things. We see this happen later in our Torah when Miriam is stricken with a scaly-white skin disease after she speaks ill of her brother, Moses, and his wife. She heals outside the camp and returns only after she is physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready.

But I don’t think we can – or should – accept this concept as it is presented.

While we know that our actions can have consequences, the Torah is not so black and white as to suggest that illness is caused by poor behavior. As someone who, just three years ago, received a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (and thank God, everything is now OK!), I can attest to the fact that when illness befalls a person, the first thing we think is, “what did I do wrong?” This theology is flawed and certainly not the intention of the Torah.

The message of Tazria/Metzora is that it is not the illness we should focus on but the separation, the healing, and the return. When we live in community, we are bound to insult, offend, and worse. Our actions have consequences. But not the consequences of illness per se; our actions impact our community and our place within that community. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the community, to heal, and then to return when we are ready.

My Schechter Boston years were a long time ago, but I remember fondly how supportive the community was (and is: now I’m a Schechter Greater Hartford parent!) during times that I made poor choices or that my actions had consequences that impacted my friends. The gift of the holy community we create at Schechter is that we support those who need a “time out,” we encourage their healing, and we welcome them back. We are so privileged to share in this holy, nurturing, and supportive community!

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Shemini)

Aaron the Peace-maker and the Spirit of Welcoming

At the beginning of S’hmini, this week’s Torah portion, the tent of meeting, the place where G-d reveals Godself to our ancestors has been dedicated, the kohanim/priests (Aaron and his sons) have been ordained to serve the Holy One and the people Israel, and at last, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence is ready to enter the new space fashioned for Her.

After drawing near with sacrificial offerings which represent the people’s desire for repentance, transcendance, and peace among themselves, Aaron steps down from the altar, lifts his hands toward the people Israel, and blesses them.  In fact, I think that this is not just an issue of order of events, but of intent. Aaron descends in order to bless the people. He needs to have proximity, nearness to them, in order to discover their needs, hopes, and prayers! In fact, one of our Torah commentators, Rabbeinu Bahya, suggests that this movement toward the people means working toward their needs and benefit!  Aaron, understood by our oral traditions as being the great peacemaker [Pirkey Avot and Avot D’Rabbi Natan], is one of the earliest practicers of keruv, drawing the members of the congregation nearer to one another and the Holy One. After his movement toward the people, Aaron, now joined by his brother Moses, enters the tent of meeting. Together they reemerge and offering another blessing to the people. It is very significant, I think, that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence only appears after two of the three principal leaders of Israel (Miriam is not mentioned here) affirm the people! In plain terms, the people of Israel can channel G-d only when their leaders have faith in them and they in turn have faith in their leaders and in one another! In fact, once their leaders have blessed them and G-d’s Glory appears, they break into spontaneous song.  Only a community in which the participants feel safe, welcome, and cherished, can make this kind of music!

Like Aaron, we need to step down or forward in order to really see and hear the needs of our friends, classmates, families, and communities.  Furthermore, in order to work toward their benefit, we like “Aaron” need to be able to “love all creatures” [Pirkey Avot 1:12]. In other words, we must not only step toward our fellow human beings, but also be able to love them, to see the good in them, to bless them!

The ohel mo-ed, the tent of meeting, is the perfect metaphor for this diverse and cohesive community.  The flaps of a tent are often open. A tent can be moved where the people are and air flows into it, ever refreshing its purpose and energy.  The shoresh, or root of mo-ed, yod-ayin-dalet, involves not only time, but also gathering and appointment. At the tent of meeting we gather together thoughtfully and inclusively, honoring our differences yet aware and bearing witness to common goals.  What are these goals? If we follow the model of Aaron they are “loving peace, chasing after peace, loving our fellow creatures [human and otherwise], and drawing human beings near to Torah (teaching, enlightened perspectives).”

Cantor Michael McCloskey, Hazzan-M’hanech (Cantor-Educator)

Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill