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Archive for March, 2014

Conception and childbirth: Tazria

It’s been awhile since I’ve traded childbirth stories with other women, my youngest is 15. But I remember, the intensity, the profound feeling of a new life with big blue eyes staring at you, but also the feeling like you might die because your body can’t possibly take that kind of pressure.

The Torah portion for this week opens with the rules for becoming “pure” for a Mom after conception and childbirth- able to return into relationship with the Divine.

I think it’s interesting that wording of Text begins with Tazria AND  Yalda:  Conception and Birth.
Conception is Life, but Labor and Delivery bring death incredibly close. That’s what it feels like, and for much of history was reality for a really large percentage of us.
And spring brings life from a dead land. TS Elliot wrote that April was the cruelest month, because he would rather remain dead inside, and unfeeling.
Yet interestingly, with the stresses of spring, death rates are high (spring is second only to winter) and we mark yom HaShoah in spring
Finally, the focus is on the Mom, not the Dad in this portion, and her ability to return to holiness, and to the Mikdash, which is kind of interesting, because it says she belongs there: comes from, and must return to holiness and the Mikdash.


Purified by Tears. Shemini

Day before yesterday I cried for the first time for a boy who died almost twenty years ago. His name was Brandon, and he was brilliant and funny and usually smiling. I was a twenty six year old high school science teacher and he was my student. Brandon got joy from learning about the world, you could see it on his face. He was also in a wheelchair: he was living with Muscular Dystrophy. Seemingly normal, families watch helplessly as the muscles disappear from a boy’s body.  Brandon had an aid, Marie I think her name was, whose own son, Jimmy, died from MD: it is always fatal. Marie dedicated her life to caring for these boys.  I ran into Marie several years later, and she told me Brandon had gone to Rutgers. And that he died during his junior year. Every year I tell Brandon’s story, and of how wonderful the boy was, to remember him and to give a human face to MD.  This time the shock of loss was audible as I told students about him. That was it, with their help, I finally cried for Brandon.

This past Shabbat I chanted verses and studied with a inspired young Rabbi, Dave Vaisberg and the discussion went to an area I’d thought often about – why a person who comes in contact with a dead body is considered impure, meaning unprepared for worship and ritual in the ancient Temple. Purity means wholeness, all of one kind or texture or intent.  Certainly contact with death can be times of roiling emotion, uncertainty.  I know life and death need separation, you must be busy living, not dying.  Of those in the business to assist with transitioning families when death strikes, a certain distance, a professional emotional wall, and therefore callousness may exist. For others, anger at God, or feeling touched too closely by death’s hand may mingle in our souls. These reactions are all ones which can take away from the focus. We are to worship with kavanah, (intent) of unity with this vast universe, and the creative power that surges through it – and contact with death makes us unfit for this spiritual action. Even unintentional contact? Well, yes, because you can’t get to pure from there.

If all of these reactions: callousness, confusion, anger, unintentional uncaring make us unfit, impure, I wondered, then perhaps after I pass through these initial stages there can be a purity. Perhaps the tears that you shed after awhile, after the anger, or callousness, afterward you can revel in joy of what that person’s essence was.  Perhaps those purifying tears can get you there, and point you toward holiness.

In the morning blessings of each day, we thank God for the miraculous workings of our bodies. The prayer is Asher Yatzar, and it mentions the wonder of opening the openings of our body.  Well, tear ducts are such openings. The very next prayer thanks God for creating a soul which is pure, or t’horah.  Perhaps it’s the tears that make it that way.

The Torah portion for the coming week is Shemini. I will chant the verses that speak of the death of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu. They must have been beautiful boys, for they were among the seventy that ascended the mountain to behold God, along with Moses and their Dad and 66 elders and leaders. They wanted to approach God again, but offered “alien” fire, which was apparently dangerous, for they were consumed. A shockingly dramatic and tragic scene with little explanation.  Just as there is little explanation for our existence, or the passing of boys (and girls) before their time, silence is what we hear from Aaron and Elisheva.  Too shocked and shattered with loss for tears.

We nationally mourned the shocking death of children a little over a year ago with the losses at Sandy Hook Elementary School .  As many of us were, I was shaken to the core. Madness, chaos, and death tore at our spirits, whispering that the fabric of the universe could easily come undone.  Certainly it was the support of friends as we all shook our heads, the caring that got us through. I was supposed to be singing with the choir kids that nigh (it was Chanukah) and a hug from Rabbi Larry Malinger kept me from walking out the door that night. Finally, a friend, Phil Aronson, and his brother wrote a song, Love will see us Through honoring those kids -and it is pure – pure love and honor and support. Tears are salt water, like an ocean supporting life. I finally honored a boy named Brandon.


Continuation: further inspirations and musings about the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  Many years ago, a very young neighbor of mine was experimenting with matches in his bedroom.  His Mom left the baby at my house while she went to the grocery store. Next thing I know the fire engines are wailing outside. Their home burned down to the frame.  The matches has smoldered in his room and blazed during that hour in the grocery store. We all know people that “play with fire” – the fires of addiction or other dangerous activities.  The death of Aaron’s two eldest sons scream for explanation, yet their parents are silent. This also cries for explanation, since Aaron is famously Moses spokesperson! It seems as though the boys have been a sacrifice on an alter built for animals:  the language of their sacrifice is exactly the same as the verse before they die: A fire of God goes out and consumes them exactly as the previous animal was taken.  Their ashes will be removed exactly as was commanded the animals of the sacrifice.  They have played with fire and lost. Is this a shocking tale of human sacrifice in our place of God-encounter? We have learned before that the Creator never commands us to go to the lengths of human sacrifice. – so… what is up with the sons of Aaron?

Fire: it warms, feeds, inspires, but it’s dangerous, hard to control.  The Mishkan (tabernacle) where the boys die is to have an eternal fire. If each part of the tabernacle is a part of the human soul, we are to have a fire that never quits at our core, but somehow to keep it controlled, not to “play with fire”.  God needs, and we need, our passion, but not over-zeal. Perhaps after the encounter with God on the mountain, ordinary life pales, and they become zealots.  They initiate a fire in which is “strange”, and “not commanded”, in the words of the text. Perhaps they know what will happen – after all it has JUST HAPPENED moments ago the same way with an offering. The fires of their heart are passions out of control. There are those today that fly airplanes into buildings, and strap bombs on their chest to blow their enemies up. Zealots that wish to sacrifice themselves, and others who seek death as a though seeking a lover. How can passion be balanced: Moses encounters a flame that does NOT consume that famous bush.

And Aaron is silent – with a strange word for silence that has the Hebrew word for “blood” Dam, as its root.  Perhaps Aaron is now impure, his soul a mix. Perhaps he was the one that found the bodies. Perhaps that silence was an accusation, or a depression, a real absent hole in his soul. And Elisheva’s voice, his Mom’s, is not recorded – another silence. On the death your child, what can anyone say? Silence.    I hope that faith and community returned some meaning and sanity to his parents’ lives. .That they, as we, can come around to a place and time where the tears are tears that purify.

Take out the Garbage? Tzav

wall eI love the movie Wall-e! An adorable little robot, Wall-e is cleaning up after generations of humans who have trashed planet earth until it is uninhabitable. There life begins again with a tiny plant (tree of life?) and a romance with a robot named Eve. Very biblical, very sad and hopeful at the same time. I use a  scene of Wall-e in teaching the importance of photosynthesis to my students. That a single seedling could be the symbol of salvation for a planet is powerful, just as the vision of a planet trashed is terrifyingly too close for comfort.

This week, as I’m preparing text from Leviticus I read that the priest of the wilderness Mishkan is commanded (Tzav) in changing his clothes to take out the ashes of the sacrificial fires -to put on special clothes, then change them again when he returns.
Why put on special clothes to take out trash – why the big deal? Perhpas trash is a metaphor for all the old business in our lives, and we should make a clean break (Tornberg) But maybe it’s about the trash! In modern times we are so used to creating so much trash that we take it for granted.That’s new. There really is no such thing as trash, and no such place as “away”
The thing that drew my attention is the text takes care to mention that the cloth is on his body  ( where else would it be?) just as the ashes are on the alter, and then next to the camp. there is language connecting the living man with the fire of the alter – including the “consuming” the fire does, which, of course, is the same root as ‘eating” Anyway IT’S COOL that he puts on fine new linen to take out the ashes and respectfully place them out, and then changes his clothes. Animals have been sacrificed on that alter to God in an attempt at Korban, drawing close. Those ashes are not trash. they are sacred.
Just as our ashes, once we leave this world, are not trash, they are sacred.
Any archeologist knows, trash is gold.
The song I’d like to finish these comments with is the late, great troubadour Pete Seeger’s  GARBAGE.  

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