Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Zekie Lieberman's Original Compositions: Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu

Zekie worked with his tutor Rena Branson and created original music. We all look forward to singing with Zekie and Rena in person one day soon!

Zekie Lieberman's Bar Mitzvah Derash on Bereshit

Mazel tov, Zekie and to your parents Beth Janus and Seth Lieberman, and your sister Nami. We are so proud of you!

Here is Zeke's Davar Torah.

Shabbat shalom. When I was reading through my Torah portion, I noticed something peculiar. Two times, God asked questions, probably already knowing the answers. This captured my attention because why would God ask these interrogations if God is all-knowing? Is there some deeper meaning behind them? The first instance is after Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge. God asks Adam where he is and Adam says he heard God and because he is naked, he hides. With only this one question, God asks Adam if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge. But why does God have to question? The second time is after Cain kills Abel. God asks Cain where Abel is. Cain then says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. This time God’s response is even more puzzling. God blames Cain when all he has done is ask if he is in charge of his brother. God is correct, but once again, why does God ask and jump to conclusions so quickly? Today, I will be exploring the possibilities of God’s perplexing and repetitive actions. Are there any other times in the Tanach when this happens? Let’s find out.

            What I discovered is that yes, there are many instances when God or God’s angels do something like this. One time this occurs is in Jonah. After God decides not to kill the people of Ninevah, Jonah says that he’d rather die than see the people not get punished. Next, God proceeds to ask what is wrong, when quite frankly, it is obvious! Another example of this is in Vayera. Hagar’s baby almost dies, and God asks what’s wrong. If a friend of yours almost loses someone close, you wouldn’t ask them what’s wrong. If anyone should know social cues, it should be God. Plus, God should have nothing to learn; God should know what’s wrong. But God always has reasons for God’s actions. An additional time is in Vayishlach. After wrestling with God’s Angel, the angel renames Jacob to Israel. Jacob then asks what the Angel’s name is. The angel asks why Jacob would ask. If someone wrestles you and renames you, wouldn’t you want to know his or her name? 

            We know God as an all-powerful, tells-you-what-to-do, serious being. It doesn’t seem like God is the type to laugh. Or so we think. I believe that God is being sarcastic. But this is not just humor, it’s humor with a deeper meaning. God’s strange questions are God’s way of conveying something to us—in these cases, that God is not always so formal. True, God’s questions do not seem like sarcasm, but the Torah would never say, “Gee, I wonder where Adam is.”. Sometimes, we can overlook these moments because the Torah’s way of expressing sarcasm is different, but we have to remember that this position is critical to our understanding of the Torah. 

            Sometimes people today use satire to open a new perspective on people or things. There is a YouTuber named Rob Lopez who made a video about if Airpods commercials were honest. He highlights all the unnecessary features: how they are lost easily, how they fall out of your ear, and most importantly how incredibly overpriced they are. Although the delivery was humorous, it questions why so many people buy this unnecessary product to go into a rich guy’s wallet when there people dying on the streets from hunger. Also, I saw a Key & Peele skit about if teachers got treated like football players. The skit went into an imaginary world where teachers got paid millions a year, there were teacher drafts, and the teacher’s choices of who to call on were competitive. Even though this was comical, it got me thinking. Why do football players get so much more attention? Should we do something about it? This is another example where comedy opened my eyes. Before watching this, I hadn’t really put much thought into it, but it gave me a new perspective.

Now that we think we have the answer, what should we learn from it? What we acquire from this is a more authentic relationship with God. We can look at God as more of someone to relate to, instead of an all-powerful, above us being. Sure, we still need God as our leader, but we will be more likely to want to follow God as someone slightly like us. This makes God more of a friend, as well as a leader. God is already different enough from us that we can distinguish, but this is a slight overlap in personality. After watching the fake Airpods commercial, we are still going to keep using Apple products, but we might rethink why we need all this. Maybe not get every single model every single year—a more authentic relationship with the products we buy. Relating to the Key & Peele sketch, people are not going to all of a sudden stop watching sports, but maybe we can advocate for teachers! There is so much we can learn from satire, even if it first doesn’t seem like it has a deeper meaning. 

For my mitzvah project, my sister Nami and I are creating another way to learn. We want to create an app that will help people decrease their animal product consumption. We know it’s unrealistic to make everyone vegan because it’s intimidating to change your diet so drastically, but if everyone ate slightly less meat and dairy, it would save hundreds of thousands, even millions, of animals. It would also significantly improve climate change. Users will log their food intake and the app gives them a “reduction score”. Whether you are a vegetarian looking to have a little less milk, or a big meat-eater trying to decrease your red meat consumption, the app will help you improve. In addition, the app may include a social aspect, so users can compare scores with their friends, family, or even complete strangers. Users will also be able to earn coupons to vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants or products. While Nami is exploring the coding side, I am focusing on the business side. Whether you want to reduce animal product consumption to help animals, help the planet, or improve your health, SaveDatCow will work for you.

I’d like to thank Rabbi Adam for helping with my D’var Torah, Rena for teaching me the material for today, all the relatives and friends that came here in person, and all the relatives and friends that came through Zoom. I’d also like to thank my sister Nami for helping with the app, the slideshow, and the siddur. Finally, a huge thank you to my parents for organizing the whole event.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Tazria-Metzora 5780 - mid-Pandemic

Maria Pulzetti | Reconstructing Judaism  Tazria-Metzora 5780, Minyan Dorshei Derekh
Maria Pulzetti

I’m sorry I’m not in the service with you today.  I miss sharing Shabbat services with all of you, but I’ve chosen, for now, not to use screens or electronics on Shabbat per my longtime practice.  Thank you so much to Tamara for offering to deliver this d’var, which I had agreed to do a couple of months ago, before I realized I would not be able to do so in person.

Here we are in late April 2020, reading this week’s double parsha, Tazria-Metzora, where the Torah sets forth the rules for certain situations – some extremely common, some less so – when a person has to limit contact with others.  The Torah calls this a state of tamei, which we can translate (inadequately) as ritual impurity.  In this state a person can’t touch other people or sanctified objects or porous food containers; clothing, bedding or furniture may require washing if they come into contact with that person; the person can’t go to the Mishkan, the place for communal worship; the person must wash with water; and in the most severe version, the affected person has to live apart from the community.    

It all sounds so familiar.

For all these circumstances, the Torah also sets forth procedures for returning people and objects to a regular, tahor, state.  I want to focus our discussion today on what it means to have a prescribed, routine means of transitioning from a state of limited contact to a state of reintegration, and on the particular reintegration ritual for a person separated from the community due to serious disease.
The ways that a person becomes tamei include childbirth, a skin affliction we’ll call leprosy, menstruation, seminal emission, sex, and irregular male or female discharge.  These are not obscure circumstances!  Menstruating women, couples who’d had sex the prior night, anyone who’d given birth in the past several weeks -- the restrictions on contact were not for a tiny group of the disfavored or most vulnerable people.  On some level the restrictions would fall upon almost every adult at some point, and presumably a pretty high percentage of the population on any given day. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Torah sets forth a reintegration ritual for each situation.  There is always a way to end the state of tamei and return to a state of tahor (ritual access, or the absence of social distancing).  In fact the text is more preoccupied with the return ritual than with the state of tamei itself.  For all of the conditions except leprosy, the Torah specifies an amount of time when the tamei state ends and the ritual may be performed.  For many of the conditions except childbirth, the period is 7 days.  Some of the rituals are private (for instance, bathing in water, washing one’s clothes), and some have a public component requiring sacrifices to be brought to the Mishkan.  The separation from regular contact is thus time-limited and predictable.  Being in a state of tamei is common, short, and fixable.
Reading the text this year, I was drawn to the description of treatment of people with the skin affliction we’ll call leprosy.  The sick person, whose condition is diagnosed by the kohen, has to live outside the camp until the kohen declares that the person has recovered.  Unlike the other conditions, this state of tamei does not have a fixed end date.  The open-ended timeline, the separation from community and from family, the potentially life-threatening illness, and the reliance on a powerful community leader to lift restrictions on mobility evoke so many of the circumstances and feelings we face in the coronavirus pandemic.  Some people will not heal and will not be granted permission to return, and they will die outside their family and community.  For others, the kohen will declare them recovered, and they will reintegrate.

The reintegration ritual is striking.  First the priest prepares a liquid of bird blood and red dye and sprinkles it on the person; the person then bathes, washes clothes, and shaves.  At this point the person may reenter the camp, but must remain outside their tent for seven days.  On the eighth day, the person goes to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices.  (The text provides a less costly sacrifice option, birds, for people who are poor.)  The kohen must sprinkle blood from the sacrifice and dab it on the person’s right ear, right thumb, and right big toe.  The kohen also dabs part of the oil on the right ear, thumb, and toe, and pours the rest of the oil over the person’s head. (Lev. 14:14-18).  The person is now tahor.

This ritual with dabbing sacrificial blood and oil on the ear, thumb and toe occurs only one other time in the Torah: for the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the high priests.  Before that ritual, too, the priests were separated for 7 days.  The ordination ritual, conducted by Moses, included dabbing blood of a sacrificed ram on Aaron’s and his sons’ right ears, thumbs and big toes.  (Lev. 8:23-24).  It also included sprinkling the oil used in the Mishkan on Aaron and his sons.  This process sanctifies the priests.  (Lev. 8:30). 

Why is the ritual for reintegrating the person recovered from leprosy so similar to the ritual for ordaining the high priests? 

Biblical scholar and Rabbi Tamara Eskenazi writes, “Leviticus concentrates on reconnecting the persons who have been isolated and on bringing them back to the center.  The more marginalized the ill persons have been, the greater the effort to bring them back into the fold. . . . Leviticus 14 illustrates the tremendous investment in the social and religious reconnection and rehabilitation of persons formerly stigmatized and excluded by virtue of the disease.  The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the ordination of the High Priest.”  So the Torah is teaching us here that a drastic, stigmatizing isolation requires an elaborate reintegration.

The ancient rabbis associate the leprosy diagnosis with death, not only because the disease was serious, but also because the text states that the sick person rends their clothing, an act associated with mourning. (Lev. 13:45).  Because the recovered leper had been in a state so closely associated with death, ritual is necessary to reenter community.  This helps us connect the leprosy condition to the birth- and reproduction-related states of tamei.  Childbirth and acts associated with potential or foregone reproduction also bring humans close to the liminal stages of life, where the boundaries between human action and Divine presence blur.  When people approach those boundaries, too, a period of limited contact followed by reintegration was required.

·         For states of tamei that involved fewer restrictions than leprosy, the reintegration rituals were simpler.  What practices do we have in our community for concluding periods of separation?  What reintegration practices might we envision for emerging from the current period of separation?

·         What can we learn from the teaching that life-threatening illness, isolation and stigma require affirmative and elaborate reintegration rituals?

·         The ancient rabbis and later commentaries blame the sick person for contracting leprosy as a result of sin, in particular lashon ha-ra.  In that framework, the isolation from community is a punishment as well as a means to prevent contagion.  Despite advances in our knowledge of medicine, the association of illness with fault or moral failure continues today.   In what ways do we blame and isolate people with chronic disease [e.g. substance use disorder, severe mental illness, type 2 diabetes, obesity] that some in our society blame on moral failing?  How might we as a Jewish community frame an approach to chronic disease that promotes prevention and healthy behaviors but does not fault those who are sick?

Although the reintegration ritual for leprosy was unusual, one aspect of it is more common, an act that we associate with joy, abundance and G-d’s comfort: pouring oil over the head.  In the Psalm for Shabbat and in Psalm 23, the psalmists praise G-d for pouring oil over their heads.  In Psalm 23, this line is “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  May we find ways to ensure that all recovering from serious illness, and all reintegrating after a period of prolonged separation, experience Divine comfort and a cup that overflows.