D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (Tazria-Metzora)

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Turning A House into a Jewish Home

Just the other day, a contractor friend of mine was telling me how lumber prices and other construction costs are going through the roof. It seems that being forced to spend much of the past year sequestered in our houses has led many to better appreciate “Home! Sweet home!,” thereby inspiring a glut of home improvement projects. Home improvement happens to be a favored Jewish practice, and one of the themes of this week’s double Torah portion.

 In the second portion, parshat Metzora, the Torah describes a situation in which a house gets sick: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess…” (Lev 14:34).  Our Sages in the Talmud (Arachin 16a) teach us that a house gets sick when it stops being a Jewish home. To maintain the health and wellbeing of a house, we must turn our house into a Jewish home. But what exactly is the architecture of a Jewish home? How do we structure the spaces and organize the flow of our habitation to orient and nurture our family’s Jewish values and identity? I would suggest that we look to three categories of form and function.

Jewish Symbols: A mezuzah on our doorways; proudly displaying Judaica, like Shabbat candlesticks, kiddush cups, havdalah set, seder plate, shofar, etc.; featuring wall artwork with Jewish themes or images of Israel; a tzedakah box and siddur in our children’s room; building a foundational library of Jewish books.

Jewish Time: Finding family-friendly ways to celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays within our homes, like lighting Shabbat candles and sharing Shabbat and Yom Tov family dinners together with songs and words of Torah. Morning and bedtime rituals including Jewish story-telling and singing the Shema. Putting coins in the family tzedakah box at regular intervals and fixed times.

Jewish Space: When Covid-safe, inviting family and friends into our homes to share Jewish rituals, observances, and especially Shabbat and holiday meals.  Using Hebrew and Jewish words for items, foods, and activities in our homes. Hosting an evening of Torah learning or a parlor meeting for a Jewish and/or social justice organization.

Jewish symbols, time flow, and space usage do indeed create a home environment of Jewish form and flow.  Jewish home improvement is interior decorating for our family’s inner spiritual world, moral universe, and Jewish identity. We best educate our children by turning our houses into Jewish homes. Indeed, the past pandemic year has made us better appreciate our houses and be more aware of health and wellness. Per the parashah, let us also work to improve the health of our houses by turning them into Jewish homes.

Benjamin J. Samuels has been the rabbi of Cong. Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Centre, since 1995, and teaches widely in the Greater Boston Community.

D’var Torah: Naomi Zaslow (Shemini)

This week’s parsha finds us still in the desert, with tragedy marring an otherwise joyous scene. In Vayikra Chapter Nine, Aaron brings a Shalamim offering to God. The Shalamin, from the same shoresh (root word) as our Modern Hebrew Shalom, was a friendship and goodwill offering. It was given voluntarily, unattached to a sin, as a mode of connection with the divine. After Aaron brings the offering, the nation feels blessed.

The text then brings us two perplexing pasukim (verses) at the start of Chapter Ten:

1. וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜בוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which God had not commanded them.

2. וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

In a fast slew of verbs, Aaron’s sons hastily bring an additional voluntary offering to God that is rejected with dire consequences. No words of comfort are offered by Moses, only the acknowledgement that God has acted.

Much ink has been spilled by classical and modern commentaries on the nature of Nadab and Abihu’s offering, but I have always been more mesmerized by Aarons’ reaction: “וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן” (And Aaron held his peace.) How could a father, after such a traumatic event, remain at peace? How could it be that those that Aaron is in community with also seem to not respond to his situation?

The shoresh (root word) of vayiddom means “to be still” or even “to be petrified”. This can change our understanding: Aaron is shocked, so shocked that he has no words for what has happened to his family. Those around him might have also have realized that in such a situation, words of comfort would be empty.

As a community today, we sometimes encounter tragedy that hits close to home. The lesson behind this parshah is that sometimes, there can be no words and no comfort, from both ourselves and others. As it says in Mishnah Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:18, “Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him.” May it be a bracha (blessing) to all of us to know when words are needed, and when presence alone will be the most healing.

Shabbat shalom!


Naomi Zaslow, Former Faculty