Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Parashat Emor 5770

In tandem with Leviticus's Parashat Emor which discusses the Biblical Festival Calendar, here are a few thoughts in vlog form about three dimensions of Jewish Calendar Observances:

1. Agricultural
2. Mythical/Historical
3. Ethical

Which dimension(s) speak most to the way in which YOU connect to the Jewish Holidays?

Please enjoy the new video features that I am introducing this week.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fraud and the Jewish Tradition: Reflections from Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770

Shalom, Friends!

This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot - Kedoshim, seems improbably apt given this week's headlines. In eerie synchronicity with the SEC's allegations of a kind of fraud perpetrated by Goldman Sachs, we come to a constellation of the Torah's teachings about fraud, all contained within the parasha (Kedoshim) known in some academic circles as the Torah's "Holiness Code." A predominant concern of this portion is ethics, and ethics governing the conduct of business are given special prominence.

I would love for you to consider three teachings from this week's portion and then, using the "Comments" space on our blog, evaluate them and interpret them in light of the Goldman Sachs case.

I am eager to see what you have to say.

A lively conversation may also ensue at Torah study this coming Saturday... so come one, come all.

"You shall not defraud your fellow, nor commit robbery...."

"You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind...."

TEXT #3: LEVITICUS 19:35-36
"You shall not falsify measure of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah [solid measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure]...."

Happy Studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tazria-Metzora 5770: Two Jewish Views of Illness and Healing

physician_office_system_program.jpgTazria – Metzora, Lev. 12:1 – 15:33

This week's reading combines two Torah portions,
Tazria and Metzora. Tazria begins with a discussion of defilement and purification following childbirth, and continues with a discussion of the dread skin disease of the Bible, tzara'at, a subject continued in Parashat Metzora. Tzara'at denotes a variety of skin rashes and blemishes; but the Torah applies the term to clothing and houses as well, where it may have meant various molds or mildews that could discolor surfaces of fabric or stone. Whereas tzara'at is customarily translated as "leprosy," we will refer to it in the original Hebrew, so as to distinguish tzara'at from Hansen's Disease, popularly called "leprosy" today.

Our selection comes from the first
segment (aliyah) of Parashat Tazria:

"When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests." (Lev. 13:2)

Ancient Israelite society did not designate a professional class of "medical doctors." However, both Priests and Prophets functioned as healers and medical diagnosticians. Let us consider the healing work of the Priests first. In the verse we are considering, Aaron and his sons are invested with the authority to evaluate skin ailments and to classify them either as
tzara'at (in which case the patient was deemed ritually unclean) or, for lack of a better term, "not tzara'at" (in which case the patient was deemed clean). It would appear that diagnosing the sick and ministering to them was all in a day's work for the Israelite Priest.

The Priest had no special medicines, potions, or incantations to treat the
metzora (the person afflicted with tzara'at). His work consisted of diagnosing the patient, placing him in quarantine if found with tzara'at, and welcoming him or her back to the community once pronounced clean.

Prophets in the Hebrew Bible also attended to the holy work of healing. In the Haftarah that accompanies
Parashat Tazria (II Kings 4:42 - 5:19), the prophet Elisha treats a man inflicted with tzara'at. Naaman, a foreign military commander, seeks Elisha's help, hoping he will cure him with a divine miracle. Instead, the prophet prescribes bathing carefully and regularly in the Jordan river for a week.

Naaman finds the Prophet's prescription profoundly disappointing. He had expected more from a "man of God." "I thought," he said, "he would surely come out to me, and would stand and invoke the Eternal his God by name, and would wave his hand toward the spot, and cure the affected part." Then, Naaman "stalked off in a rage." Naaman's servants urged him to heed Elisha's simple prescription, and he reluctantly complied.

At the end of a week of bathing, his skin disease had faded to nothing. The solution required nothing more than careful attention to personal hygiene. Like the Priest in the Torah, the Prophet in the Haftarah offers no medicines, potions, or incantations--in this case, just sound advice.

These examples of the Prophet and the Priest elucidate Jewish views of healing. Two lessons emerge.

From the case of Naaman and the Prophet, we see Judaism's overarching practicality and reverence for the natural sciences. Faith in God does not imply that we expect the unreasonable. The Talmud says: "One should not rely on miracles" (
Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:4). Even more to our point, we read, "When a person has pain, s/he should visit a physician" (Bavli, Bava Kamma 46b), thus distinguishing Judaism from religious traditions that would instruct the ailing faithful to avoid modern medicine and instead pray for divine intervention. Judaism sees no conflict between piety and practicality.

From the case of the
metzora and the Priest, we see how Judaism distinguishes "healing" from "a cure." Undoubtedly the Priest brought a form of healing to the patient even if unable to supply a cure. His presence--a presence of compassion and continuing concern--provides a worthy example for us. The Priest had no power to cure the metzora. He could only examine the skin, make his diagnosis, and protect the rest of the community against contagion if necessary. But the Torah's procedure for the treatment of tzara'at required him to make contact with the patient, whose physical suffering was certainly compounded by fear and loneliness.

We give thanks for the advances of medical science that have so dramatically improved our health and longevity. We give thanks for the physicians whose work brings healing to the sick daily, and to the scientists who labor to develop new treatments and discover new cures. We give thanks for a religious tradition that places preservation of our own health and hygiene among the highest of
mitzvot. And, when we or our loved ones are sick, we give thanks for the simple presence of caring friends, family, and clergy, who bring a modest but meaningful form of healing to spirits broken by illness, anxiety, and isolation.


1. A study published a few years ago in The American Heart Journal contemplated the relationship between prayer and healing; much discussion has ensued. Among its findings, the study announced that prayers offered for hospitalized cardiac patients not only did not help their medical progress, but may have hampered it (possibly because of a kind of "performance anxiety," i.e., patients feeling under pressure to recover for the sake of the strangers offering prayers!). What do you think defines an accurate and appropriate relationship between prayer and healing?

2. Recitation of public prayers for healing, long a feature of traditional Jewish worship, have caught on with dramatic success in hundreds of Reform congregations over the past several years. The most popular example is the song "
Mi Shebeirach" by Debbie Friedman, which has become a mainstay in most Reform congregations and which will be "canonized" in the Movement's forthcoming prayer book, Mishkan Tefillah. What do you think accounts for the trend? Why do so many service-goers feel drawn to the public offering of prayers for healing, often accompanied by offering the names of the ailing? Do you find these prayers beneficial or meaningful in any way?

3. "Rabbi Aha bar Hanina said: 'One who visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth of his illness.' " (Babylonian Talmud,
Nedarim 39b). How do you understand this statement?Do you find it "true," at least in a poetic or metaphorical sense? (It may help you to know that "one-sixtieth" is a Talmudic idiom implying, "the smallest measurable portion.") How does this statement underscore the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, the Jewish obligation to visit the sick?

4. Can you identify a time that you either visited loved ones in the hospital, or when you were sick and were visited by loved ones? Did they, or you, experience any kind of "healing?" If so, what words would they, or you, use to describe how that "healing" felt?

Stay healthy and study heartily!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Note: Most of the above comments have been previously published as part of the URJ's "Ten Minutes of Torah" column.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Few Thoughts About The Omer - 5770

I offer these words at a time in between Passover, the Festival of Freedom, and Shavuot, the Festival that celebrates the Jewish people encountering God at Mt. Sinai and accepting the sacred words of Torah. In Jewish communities, we observe a nightly ritual called Counting the Omer, so named in Hebrew for grain offering that was presented in springtime. The days between Passover and Shavuot are numbered each evening. The Book of Leviticus describes this ritual, instructing us to count every day for the full seven week duration in between our two major Spring Festivals.

Why do we count these days aloud? We could offer the following three reasons among many.

First of all, the counting demonstrates our anticipation for receiving on the Torah, celebrated on Shavuot. If you’ve ever counted the days with eager anticipation until the end of school, or until a vacation from work, or until a birthday or other celebration, then you might understand what I mean. Counting teaches us that Pesach and Shavuot are linked, that one anticipates the next, that the Freedom we commemorate in the former is not complete until we commemorate the giving of Law in the latter.

Second, counting aloud encourages a state of mindfulness about the infinite potential of every single day. Long ago the Psalmist prayed to God, “Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire hearts of wisdom.” This period of counting helps us to notice what a single human being can accomplish in a single day, if only we approach each day as a fresh miracle. Counting each day helps us to take notice of the thousand opportunities for sacred deeds that come with the rising and setting of the sun. We call these opportunities mitzvot, deeds of sacred living. Counting each day becomes a kind of spiritual discipline.

Finally, a tradition about the Omer warns that if a day is missed in the counting, it cannot be made up. How sad if the only thing we could count from this day would be missed opportunities. What will you do this day to make it count?

Shabbat Shalom and Have a Meaningful Omer!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake