CONTAMINATED — Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CONTAMINATED — Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some tribal societies have medicine men who treat physical ailments with mystery cures. Ancient Israel left that function to the cohanim, the priests, Aaron and his descendants. The Book of Leviticus prescribes some treatments in three of the less pleasant chapters in the Torah. Most of these treatments involve declaring the patient to be taMEY – Contaminated. That condition could last a day, or could go on for months. Sometimes that condition just meant that the patient could not enter the sanctuary and was prevented from eating sacrificial meat.

Most dreaded of diseases was leprosy – tzaraas. Its treatment is the most extreme. One device used is familiar to us today as quarantine. The leper had to pitch his tent outside the main camp, must wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose, and if anyone comes near him he must cover his upper lip and cry out taMEY taMEY – “Contaminated, contaminated!” – thus warning people to stay away from him.

Surprisingly enough, this entire double section that we will read this week starts with a law that is not about disease, but about childbirth. When a woman conceives and bears a son, we are told, she is considered to be contaminated by the blood she has shed. This condition lasts one week, the same length as her menstruation. Then she takes a ritual bath and her son gets circumcised. By most rabbinical opinions she now can and should resume relations with her husband. But she is not to enter the sanctuary for another 33 days, after which she brings an offering to the sanctuary and the cohen declares her pure.

When the baby is a girl, the length of the mother’s contamination is doubled – 14 days before the bath and 66 days thereafter. Theories about this difference are varied, but it would seem to place special importance on the birth of a female who will grow up to experience the monthly cycle, and some day may also bear a new life.

So how do we move from the joy of new life to the plague of leprosy? Contamination – tum’ah – is the key word. It can affect the healthy mother, or the suffering patient. It can even affect the house we live in and the clothes we wear. While the Torah’s remedies have no obvious connection to modern science, we get the definite message that sometimes we cause our own contamination. In fact, the rabbis note, the word for a leper – metzora – is a contraction of the words motzi shem ra, which means “bringing out a bad name.” In other words, slander.

Whether it starts as thoughtless gossip or as deliberate character assassination, loshon hora – the evil tongue – contaminates our lives. No cohen and no medicine man can cure it. It was the great Maimonides who wrote that the evil tongue destroys three people: the one who spreads the bad report, the one who is the subject of it, and the one who listens to it. The only antidote is prevention. If we fail to prevent it, if we participate, we might do well to cover our upper lip and cry “Contaminated!”

Throughout this week’s reading we learn how the cohen must search for the infection. He has specific ways to examine the patient, or the clothing, or the house. When he finds the plague cleaned up, he pronounces the verdict tahor – “pure.”

So let it be said of us.

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ALCOHOL AND TORAH – Sh’mini – Lev. 10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ALCOHOL AND TORAH – Sh’mini – Lev. 10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading includes the story of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, and their tragic mistake. The words of the Torah tell a strange and supernatural story. On the eighth day (sh’mini) of the new Tabernacle, after a solid week of sanctifying Aaron and his sons as priests to conduct the sacrificial worship, the first two of those sons take their fire-pans, put fire and incense in them, and ”bring them before G-d.” But the fire they delivered was “strange fire,” not the consecrated fire from the altar. As a result, a punishing flame “came out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died.”

A challenging narrative, to say the least. Were Nadav and Avihu experimenting with explosives? Did the fire in their pans come from some polluted fuel? Indeed, taken literally, does this mean that changing any detail of the religious ritual is a capital offense?

Commentators faced this challenge in several ways. The most accepted interpretation is based on the very next message Aaron gets from On High. “Drink no wine or strong drink when you are coming into the Sanctuary, you or your sons.” This timing would indicate that Nadav and Avihu made their fatal mistake because they were DUI – delivering under the influence. Aaron and his remaining sons have to take this as a grim warning against drinking before officiating.

Do we learn from this story that the Torah is anti-alcohol? Should we only make Kiddush over grape juice? Not true. Wine and liquor are often mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes positively and sometimes conscious of their danger. In the Psalms, King David sings “wine makes a man’s heart glad.” On the other hand, when a Biblical man wanted to rise on the scale of holiness he took the Nazirite vow – no wine, no strong drinks. Being prized for its pleasure, alcohol is also plagued by its power.

How appropriate this subject appears to be for this season. Last month we celebrated Purim, the one holiday when a famous Talmudic statement tells us to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman!” And just a few days later our Irish neighbors toasted St. Patrick. Is it the season?

Of course not. The bottom line in using alcohol, like the bottom line in other human activity, is balance. Know your limit. Know your body’s strengths and weaknesses. And use discretion. It’s pretty safe to say that most people can bring in the Sabbath or a holiday safely with a blessing over a cup of wine. One cup. But if you have any problem stopping at one, grape juice is just fine. Just don’t forget the bracha – the blessing of the day. No strange fire for us!

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PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah portion, like most of the readings in Leviticus, details ancient ceremonial sacrifices. Every congregation will be able to review the sacrificial process at the initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood in the Tabernacle. When that reading concludes, and the Haftorah follows it, however, not all synagogue attendees will hear the same message.

Chabad, and other Hassidic communities, will read Jeremiah’s stern pronouncement against leaders who violate G-d’s commandments, and he predicts dire results for them and those who follow them.

Many, if not most, congregations – the non-Hassidic ones — will read a special pre-Passover message from Malachi, declaring that the people have a chance for their hopes to be fulfilled – including the arrival of Eliyohu haNovi – Elijah the prophet, whose wine cup graces our Seder table. All this in observance of the “great Sabbath” (Shabat hagadol) that anticipates our festival of freedom.

Why the difference? Very simple, really. Hassidic tradition is far from being negative. It simply limits Shabat hagadol to those years when this Sabbath coincides with Erev Pesach. Predict Elijah’s arrival in the morning, and expect him that night. Other sacred traditions seem to acknowledge that we anticipate Passover for many days, not just one.

What distinguishes both of these Haftorah choices is the literary structure the prophets used in communicating their messages.

Jeremiah starts by denouncing the leaders for stressing the offering of sacrifices while they commit heinous sins in the name of the Almighty – even to the extreme of sacrificing their own children. He predicts Divine punishment for them, and destruction for those who follow them, even indicating special guilt of the evil royal family – “hamishpakhah hara-ah hazot!” And he leads into one of the prime sermons of all time:

Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his brain; let not the strong man glory in his brawn;

Let not the rich man glory in his gain;

Let anyone who glories, glory in the good sense to know Me, who makes kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for those are what I desire, says G-d.

Certainly a powerful message for any Sabbath. Weekdays too. Jeremiah could stir his people, and his words still ring.

Now what about Malachi and the Shabat hagadol sermon? Malachi in fact stresses Divine patience. We do wrong, yet we get another chance, and another and another. He urges us to distinguish between tzadik and rasha – between those who do right and those who do evil. After predicting that a great fire will destroy the criminals, he recalls Moses and the Torah and the laws and judgments commanded to all Israel. Although Malachi does not mention the Exodus itself, the rabbis who scheduled this reading clearly connected that event with the trip to Sinai – here called Mr. Horeb – and our historical acceptance of those laws and judgments. And he climaxes his message with the famous promise:

Here I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and wonderful Day of G-d arrives. And he will return the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. Lest I come and strike chaos on all the Earth.

After which we symbolically repeat: Here I send you Elijah the Prophet…

So on this Shabat Tzav, whichever Haftorah you listen to, you have great words to hear. Words of hope and words of wisdom. And a beautiful cup – Elijah’s cup — to sanctify your Seder table.

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HOW MUCH TO SACRIFICE – Vayikra – Leviticus 1-5, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW MUCH TO SACRIFICE – Vayikra – Leviticus 1-5, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The Book of Leviticus – called in Hebrew “Vayikra” – begins with the call to Moses, written with a small letter “aleph” at the end of the first word. Various commentators ancient and modern go through some literary contortions to explain that little “aleph,” but let’s not get into that right now.

Bigger fish to fry. Or rather, bigger animals, birds, fine flour – bigger sacrifices. Kind of hard to relate to the procedure of animal sacrifice as the expression of religion, these days, but let’s try. Starting here, Leviticus spells out all the rules for bringing and offering different animal sacrifices, as was done in the Tabernacle in the desert, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices celebrated holidays. They also expressed guilt.

Most of this middle book of the Torah describes and proscribes the sacrificial cult. Why should we continue reading these details every year? For nearly 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Temple, we have not offered animal sacrifices. The rabbis decreed “t’filah bimkom korban – prayer replaces sacrifice.” But we still review the process in our Torah reading. Let’s see what we can learn from it.

If the anointed kohen – the officiating son or descendant of Aaron – committed a violation (and the text names a few, from becoming ritually contaminated to misappropriating a dedicated object) he had to bring a young bull. If a tribal chief – a nasi, a “prince” – was the violator, he had to bring a sheep. An ordinary Israelite brought a goat. And that only if he could afford it. The Torah specifically provides a way to pay for a mistake without taking food from the family’s mouths. “If he cannot afford (literally if his hand does not reach the value of) a sheep, he brings two doves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering.” Further, if birds are out of his “reach,” let him bring an offering of fine flour.

Clearly, the value of the sacrifice is not the vital factor. It is the action. Once you acknowledge your mistake, you express your regret through a sacrifice. That’s how they did it in the time of Moses and for many following generations. This kind of payment for violating a negative commandment applied to business dealings as well as to relations with the Divine. If an Israelite cheated his neighbor by denying an obligation – “a deposit? What deposit?” – or by not returning a pledge (security for a loan) or by finding something his neighbor lost and not returning it, or by theft, or by not paying wages and then lying about it – he must return what he had no right to keep, and must add a fifth of its value as a penalty. Then he must still bring his guilt sacrifice. Only then can the kohen help him to atone for his violation. Only then will he be forgiven.

In later days, as prayer replaced sacrifice, each Jew had to take on more responsibility. We can’t pay for our mistakes with pigeons any more. But we can still return a lost article. We can still acknowledge our debts and pay them. And we can still atone – not just once a year on Yom Kippur but every day in our prayers. And in our attitude.

That is our sacrifice. Admit we did wrong, and do what we can to correct it. How about it? Would it be easier to slaughter a goat?

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FREEDOM MONTH – Shabat Hakhodesh – Ex.12:1-20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

FREEDOM MONTH – Shabat Hakhodesh – Ex.12:1-20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Do you start naming the months of the year with July? Maybe you should. After all, July is the month of American freedom. We don’t change years in July, but the Founding Fathers changed a nation in that month.

Jewish custom, as every Hebrew school student knows, is to recite the months of the year as follows: Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Kheshvan, Kislev, Teveth, Shvat, Adar. Since we start in Tishri, the month of Rosh Hashana when we change years, Nisan would be the seventh month. Just like July on the English calendar. And why not? Considered this way, each of them can qualify as the Month of Freedom.

Indeed, this week as we welcome the month of Nisan, we will read a special Maftir – a supplementary Torah section from a second scroll, in the book of Exodus – describing the preparations for the original Exodus when our ancestors left Egypt and became a free nation. “This month for you is the head of the months,” says the Torah. “First of the months of the year is it for you.”

How were we commanded to observe it? No dances, no New Years Eve parties, just take a lamb for a special dinner. One lamb per household. And not on Rosh Hodesh, but on the 10th of the month, giving us another four days to prepare. On the night of the 14th, slaughter the lamb at twilight, smear some of its blood on the doorpost, and roast the lamb on an open fire to eat with Matzos and bitter herbs. Hardly an exciting event.

Further details limit the celebration still more. The lamb must be consumed that night, so the family must gauge each member’s appetite, and anticipate how much of that lamb they need. Because if they can’t reasonably expect to finish it, they must split it with another household. Any leftovers are to be burned in the morning.

No fancy clothes, either. “Your waist should be belted, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand.” Ready to travel, to a distant unknown land.

That was the original Seder. Not much like today’s family party. We don’t even eat lamb, in fact we stopped doing that when the Temple was destroyed and the Paschal sacrifice had to be discontinued. Not yet an occasion to express the pride and joy of a fulfilled heritage, the original Seder was a night to get ready for the fateful fight for freedom. Think about it. Was the spirit so different on the original Fourth of July?

Soldiers of the Revolutionary War certainly had to tighten their belts, keep their shoes on, and shoulder their guns. Declaring independence was only the beginning, and they knew it.

Since the days of Moses, we saw some 30 centuries combine to build desperate Hebrew slaves into a learned and accomplished nation. Just so, since the days of George Washington, a mere 24 decades built brave – and fearful – Revolutionary warriors into a proud world power. Just as we need to champion our people in Israel to build their power nationally, and scientifically and religiously and economically – so we here in the United States must remember to rebuild American power, and to rally around the ideals and the freedoms of the country we call home.

We have some inspiring parallels in Jewish and American history, and we should consider Freedom Month among them. We don’t need to make it numerically the first month of the year, but #7 rates a special place in our lives.

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