Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, April 8, 2022

Biblical Construction Projects

This weekend, I’m thinking a lot about construction: building and demolition, specifically. No, I’m not taking up a hobby in engineering, but I am thinking about the upcoming Passover seder and this week’s Torah portion in tandem.

First, the seder next week. When it comes to construction projects, I think the “garrison cities” are the most famous building project of the Passover story. Let’s recap a little: we know that the Israelites were forced to lay bricks and mortar to build these cities for Pharaoh. We also know that when Moses and Aaron first approach Pharoah in defense of the Israelites, Pharaoh spitefully makes the work even harder: no more straw will be provided to hold the bricks together, he declares. The Israelites have to take the time to go gather it, but the same number of bricks are demanded on a daily basis. It’s an impossible task that multiplies the labor and hardship.

The text is clear: the hard labor is one thing, but the malicious, devious intent of Pharaoh's decree is what cuts deep. He knows well the pain he is inflicting. There’s almost a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face as he imposes an impossible task. There’s no regard here for the laborers or the resources.

But nothing about this should surprise us. Torah tells us that these cities being built are “mis-ko-not” - translated as either garrison cities, storehouses, or treasuries for the king. The rabbis explain that the word miskonot indicates that these cities are pretty frivolous. They’re just warehouses, built to pile up weapons and the Pharoah’s loot. They’re his treasury where he hoards his own wealth, not meant for the betterment of his people, let alone the Israelites. They’re storehouses of vanity, built on the broken lives of the oppressed.

We could juxtapose this with a different sort of construction project, one that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Metzora. What we see this week is more of a demolition project, if you will. Leviticus tells us that if someone discovers tza-ra’at - a sort of fungus or affliction - growing on a house, they call the priest in to inspect it. Thus begins a multi-stage process of saving the house. First, the house is boarded up for a few days. If that doesn’t do the trick, if the plague has still spread after the quarantine, then they take out the afflicted bricks and scrape out the fungus. They replace the bricks and replaster. If, after the patch job, the plague continues to spread, only then is the house condemned and torn down.

We can understand this process pragmatically. Ancient Jews didn’t exactly have a ton of house building materials around. This was an economic way to address the houses’ plague and to try to preserve the structure before ripping it down.

But I also see a deeper value here - one that flies in the face of Pharaoh’s decree from back in Exodus. There is such care here to preserve time, resources and energy. A sense that one should do no more harm than needs to be done. Afterall, this is a person’s home we’re talking about, where they care for their family. It is treated with dignity, respect and care. Pharaoh, of course, has no idea what those things are.

If you’re of the construction mind, the Torah is filled with construction projects like this and they have similar juxtapositions. For example, the Israelites build the Golden calf - the gross epitome of vapid idol worship - which then gets replaced with the Tabernacle - a beautiful home for the 10 commandments where one does not see God, but rather where our hearts commune with the Divine.

Or think of the Tower of Babel - a highly successful construction project that, like Pharaoh’s cities, was a large-scale project with no holy purpose other than to feed egos. That building too is condemned…physically and metaphorically.

This week we ask ourselves: what are we Jews supposed to build? Well, the answer is easy: lives of virtue. Relationships full of decency. The physical spaces we construct are there to house the friendships, nurture the relationships. Hence our humble sanctuary. Or the seder tables we will finally sit around again. Why did we miss them so much these last 2 years? Maybe it’s because you love your uncle’s matzah ball soup, but I bet it's more because of the relationships formed around the table while passing the charoset.

One more building project from the seder that is worth noting. It’s a small project, one that you might miss if you don’t look hard enough.

When Yocheved gives birth to Moses, she hides him until his cries become too loud. So she builds a small ark caulked with reeds and pitch. The word used is “teva,” an ark, like the one back in Genesis. Like Noah adrift during the great Flood, Moses is set to float on the Nile - representing the last hope for his people.

Yocheved’s construction project, like Noah’s before her, is born of love and devotion. Her’s though, is small, quiet and unassuming. We Jews will build many things in our lives - physically and spiritually. We learn tonight that we are meant to build with humble purpose and always with hope. We build for what the future may hold, not just to hoard what we have now.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Tazria & Tongue Twisters

Cantor Lance and I were talking about that song we just sang: Elohai N’tzor. We both like the melody but we find the words to be quite the tongue twister. And then we realized that maybe that’s the point!

The prayer translates as: My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.

The prayer helps to accomplish what it prays for: it sort of trips up your tongue, ties it up for a while in a tongue twister, in order to keep the focus on God and humility, rather than the many other things our tongues say and do.

It has been a week where we have been hypertuned to the power of words and how they do or do not reflect our own humility. There’s the Chris Rock/Will Smith controversy at the Oscars where a joke led to much more. And there’s President Biden’s comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” which was either just an expression of his moral outrage, or a provocation with impact on policy. In both of these controversies, we see that words affect not just the speaker, but those who hear the words as well.

When not tied up properly the tongue can be vicious, petty and impulsive. The Talmud argues that God knew this and designed the human body to remind us of it. To the tongue, God says: “I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips). What more can be done to prevent you from speaking in a deceitful manner?”

But our tongues can’t help themselves, can they? Even when we think our words are innocent, or even when we think what we’re saying is for the greater good, we often find ourselves insulting, demeaning and hurting people around us.

There’s an old Hasidic story about this:

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed several of his disciples to embark on a journey. The BeSHt did not tell them where to go, nor did they ask; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.

After traveling for several hours, they stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pious Jews who insisted on the highest standards of keeping kosher. When they learned that their host planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to see the shokhet (ritual slaughterer) of the house and they interrogated him vigorously as to his knowledge and piety. They examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kashrut standard of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them. As they spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. "Dear students," she called out, "are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?"

The party of Hassidim concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward their hometown. They now understood the purpose for which their Rebbe had dispatched them on their journey that morning. What public shame they had brought to the innkeeper and the shochet! Their arrogance was on full display. Thinking they were asking holy questions, they were really sowing mistrust and humiliating their hosts. A humble nature and a compassionate tongue, the Baal Shem Tov teaches, is the the most holy act of all.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria. It contains many regulations and rituals for dealing with various skin afflictions, including a serious one called ‘tzara’at.’

The commentators reach below the text to understand why the rules around the affliction take up so much real estate in the Torah’s text. In the text, we learn that one purification ritual includes bringing birds for sacrifice. The great commentator Rashi explains why birds are offered: “Because the plague of tzara'at comes as a punishment for slander, which is done by chattering. Therefore birds are compulsory for the purification, because birds chatter, as it were, continuously with a twittering sound.”

The Baal Shem Tov’s story and Rashi’s comment warn us of the danger of “idle chatter” - of talking just because you can, or speaking over another person, not making enough room for dissent. This is chatter in the way of speaking without thinking about the consequences. And we know that gossip in Jewish tradition is one of the worst things we can engage in.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Leprous marks come and afflict a person for seven sinful matters: For malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, for licentiousness, for arrogance, for theft, and for stinginess.

It seems to me that the way we chatter and talk can lead to all of these things. We are mean. We tell lies or spread rumors that can injure a person’s livelihood and relationships. We put ourselves above others or abuse them verbally, humiliating their spirit.

Proverbs says that “a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but its perverseness is a broken spirit” (5:4).

And here, like so many times in our tradition, we get the other side of the coin. Yes, our tongues, our speech, are prone to sin. And yet the opposite is also true - our mouths have the ability to bring healing and life as well. Otherwise, we would not have been created with the ability to speak as we do!

In order to bring that life-giving speech, we must heed the Buddhist wisdom, articulated by the poet Rumi: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

These gates are not too unlike the walls our tradition speaks of. Yet it adds a third layer - what we say doesn’t just go through the teeth or the mouth, but the heart as well.

This week, let us all commit to issuing words that sustain and inspire those around us, fulfilling the prayer we sang tonight:

Elohai n’tzor l’shoni meh-ra, us-fatai midabeir mirmah

My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit
Let my soul be silent to those who curse me,
And let my soul be at peace.

In my quiet, may I feel your presence
And join with the great Unity of your creation

Silent to pessimism,
Tongue guarded from hate and judgment
Only tasting the sweet date honey of your Torah and your love.

And when I know it enough
When its sticky syrup has dissolved deep into my soul,
When the golden sweetness illumines my thoughts,
Then let me open my mouth to speak
For the sake of your name
For the sake of your right hand
For the sake of your Torah and for your holiness

So that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
May be acceptable to you, Oh God,
The rock of my life and the redeemer of my days.