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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Metzora – The Power of Speech

Posted by rabbiart on March 29, 2014

Sefer HaHinuch (following RamBam of course) reports 11 positive commandments in this parshah. All of them deal with the issue of ritual un-cleanliness, either determining the status of a person, or their recovery and ritual cleansing.  Following hard on the heels of Tazria we can safely say that the Torah considers this to be a  troubling subject to which serious attention must be paid.There are three kinds of purification identified in the Torah; immersion into water, sprinkling of water upon the person, and by sacrificial offering.


In Biblical times, the virtue of the status – ritually clean or unclean – and the virtue of the cleansing ritual was that they left the individual in a known state, and operated at the physical level. In our day, when there is no Temple, no sacrificial rite, and – practically speaking in the non-Orthodox world – no status of ritual cleanliness or the absence there of, we operate at a spiritual, emotional and psychological level.  Are we clean?  Are we unclean?  What do these distinctions mean?  And how are we to ascertain what our status is.  Unfortunately, the waters are much more murky. When we delve into the traditional sources we find that our generation is far from the first to ponder the interpretation of Tazria and Metzora.

Certainly afterward and perhaps before the Temple itself was destroyed, our scholars wrestled, as we do, with these issues.

What did it mean to be cleansed by water?  Here is Sefer HaHinuch on this question.

“Why should it purify every defiled person…that it is in order that a man should perceive himself after the immersion as though he had been created at that moment – just as the world was entirely water before there was any man in it: as it is written, and the spirit of G=d was hovering over the face of the waters (Breshit 1:2). Thus he will ponder in his reflection that just as he becomes renewed in his body, so let him make all his actions equally new, for the good.  Let him make his deeds worthy, carefully observing the ways of the Eternal Lord, blessed is He”.

There are many ways to see our reflection; water is but one. Most of us look in a mirror at least once, probably several times, during the course of a day.  When out and about, we might catch our reflection unexpectedly; in a shop window, on a security camera, in a video or photograph, or quite often, in our computer monitor when the screen is blank or dark.


One might think that a mirror gives us the truest reflection of ourselves; it is designed precisely for that purpose.  Of course we know that our image is reversed and therefore right is left and left is right.  When we look in the mirror we see what we look like, but we do not see ourselves as others see us precisely because everything is reversed.”Everyone knows” that the camera adds 10 pounds. Our society is sufficiently caught up with external appearances that HP identified a market for a camera that makes the subject look skinnier.

Water is constantly in motion. According to Robert Hunter  there will be a ripple in still water (even) when there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow.  So our reflection will itself be in motion, and constantly changing.  It is a better picture of who we are then what we see in a mirror or a photographic image. Because – to borrow from Dreamgirls we are constantly changing; oscillating as it were between being clean and un-clean.  This happens every time we open our mouths.

So the Rabbis were right on point when they translated the name of our parshah – Metzora – into the Hebrew phrase motzi shem ra. They taught that the afflictions described in our parshah come upon us because of what we say. And what we say is both what we do and who we are; it is how we announce ourselves to the world. It is a rare occasion when adverse consequences do not follow after bad speech.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis has published a wonderful book – Torah of Reconciliation – in which he explores each parshah. For our parshah this Shabbat he explores how hateful speech brings about destruction, whereas proper speech can bring about peace.  At the conclusion of his section on Metzora he says

“A single, well-placed word can heal another and totally alter another’s mood.  A spoken compassionate sentiment expressed to another can overcome years of tension and estrangement. Every person bears this capacity to become a peacemaker”.

In our day, we can cleanse ourselves – and each other – through speech. With peaceful speech we find yet another place to see our reflection; in the eyes and heart of our fellow human being. When we can see ourselves as others see us, and cleanse ourselves in the heart of our fellow, that is the best purification and the truest reflection of all.

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Parshat Tazria + Shabbat HaChodesh

Posted by rabbiart on March 28, 2014

No question that the parshah this Shabbat – and it’s companion piece next week (Metzora) are challenging for the modern reader. Not only that, but by the time of rabbinic interpretation, challenging for the ancient reader as well. Especially if that reader lived in chutz la’aretz – outside the land of Israel.Our parshah deals with a variety of impurities over the course of its two chapters. The first of its two chapters (Vayikra 12) is mercifully short, coming in at only 8 verses and dealing with the ritual impurity of a woman after child-birth. Many interpretations have been written addressing the fact that the the period of impurity is twice as long when a daughter is born than that for a son; 66 rather than 33 days. Less attention has been paid to the oddity that neither is a number of complete weeks, nor are they the length of one or two months in the Jewish calendar.

The third verse mentions that baby boys are to be circumcised on the eighth day. According to Sefer HaHinuch at least, this verse is not the primary source of this commandment.  He does not list this among the 7 commandments derived from this parshah.

In his treatment of mitzvah #166 (the ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth) he makes a prefatory statement about human illness that rings true even today, especially with regard to what are commonly referred to as lifestyle diseases. Here it is in the English translation.

In his treatment of mitzvah #166 (the ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth) he makes a prefatory statement about human illness that rings true even today, especially with regard to what are commonly referred to as lifestyle diseases. Here it is in the English translation.

“There is no doubt that human illnesses come either on account of an excess in the body or a deficiency, or on account of some damage or deterioration which which it suffers from whatever cause there may be.  For in truth, as long as its nature is balanced to the utmost degree and it has not suffered any sort of damage, the body will not sicken; but the sin of people will lead them to have an excess or a lack in what is needed for their nature, and they will fall ill.” (Sefer HaHinuch, volume 2, page 201 Feldheim Publishers).

The second of our two chapters deals with a variety of skin diseases and the procedures for examining them.  Many translations render the word tza’ra’at as leprosy, but this is inaccurate.  Until the advent of antibiotics, leprosy was a disease with no known medical treatment, so lepers were permanently isolated.  In our parshah we learn that the skin conditions can be temporary, and the person (or garment) may return to health and also be restored to the community. (By the way, you can read a short article about Hansen’s disease here.

Our Rabbis struggled mightily to construct a teaching from the text of this parshah. The primary approach is to learn out that these diseases are a result of imperfections in human behavior.  Here are two:

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that skin disease results from seven sins: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy.

Similarly, a Midrash taught that skin disease resulted from 10 sins: (1) idol-worship, (2) unchastity, (3) bloodshed, (4) the profanation of the Divine Name, (5) blasphemy of the Divine Name, (6) robbing the public, (7) usurping a dignity to which one has no right, (8) overweening pride, (9) evil speech, and (10) an evil eye.

You can read the details and see the proof-texts for each of these interpretations in the Wikipedia article on our parshah.

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Parshat Pekudei

Posted by rabbiart on February 23, 2014

Everyone knows what a palindrome is. Our parshah opens with a verse that while not a palindrome, immediately suggests one.

אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל-פִּי מֹשֶׁה

It’s a well established principle that no word or even letter in the Torah is superfluous. When we begin to look deeply at this verse four words, which are only two roots, jump out at us. Reading in the transliterated form we have “pekudei ha-mishkan, mishkan ha-edut, asher pakad . Stripped down and in the root form, we have l’paked – mishkan – mishkan – l’paked.

The root PKD can be translated as to command, to count, to enumerate, even “to visit” or “to remember” (as in “HaShem pakad et Sarah” Breshit 21:1). The mishkan which we build and rebuild so that HaShem will dwell among us, is commanded for us to build.  This verse is instructing us that our accepting of the commandment, along with our visiting it and remembering it’s purpose, is what makes the mishkan into a truly alive active and vibrant place where HaShem dwells in and among us.

As Midrash Tanhuma puts it (paragraph 2 on this parasha).  [The double occurrence of] the word comes to say that the lower sanctuary points to the upper sanctuary and is parallel to it.

R Yakov the son of R. Asi said: Why does he say “Adonai I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells”. (Psalms 26) Because building the Mishkan is parallel to  and like creating the world!  How?

(A series of word-play connections follows)

On the first day it is written “In the beginning HaShem created the heavens and earth” as it is written in Psalms 104 “He stretches the heavens as a curtain“. Regarding the Mishkan it is written “You shall make a curtain of goat skins (Shmot 26)

On the second day it is written “Let there be a firmament (which divides) the upper and lower waters). With regard to the Mishkan “and the parochet shall divide between the holy and the holy of holies.
On the third day it is written “Let the waters be gathered”. With regard to the Mishkan “you shal put water (in the brass laver)” (Shmot 30).On the fourth day it is written “Let there be lights in the firmament”. With regard to the Mishkan “make a golden light-holder“.On the fifth day it is written “let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly”. With regard to the Mishkan “offer sacrifices of lambs and fowl”.

On the sixth day it is written “Elohim created man in his image”. With regard to the Mishkan “A man who is the high priest who has been anointed to serve before HaShem”.

On the seventh day it is written “The heavens and earth were completed“. With regard to the Mishkan “the work was completed“. In creating the world “Elohim blessed“. With regard to the Mishkan “Moshe blessed them”. In creating the world it is written “vayikadesh oto“. With regard to the Mishkan it is written “vayikadesh oto“.

So why is the Mishkan parallel to and equal to heaven and earth. Because what are heaven and earth but witness for Israel, as it is written “I call heaven and earth to witness” (Devarim 30). Regarding the Mishkan it is written ” this is the account of the Mishkan, the Mishkan is the witness“.

Thus we learn from the Psalmist “HaShem I love the habitation of your House and the place where your presence lives and dwells”.

We build the Mishkan so HaShem will live among us. We feel the presence of HaShem living among us, so we build and rebuild the Mishkan.


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Israel Ride 2013 – More riders from the East Bay

Posted by rabbiart on March 14, 2013

Last night I met with David Eisenberg who does the ride every year, Aaron Parker from the Bay Area JNF office, and a couple other ride alumni.  We made some plans to beef up the recruiting out here in the Bay Area.  Overall we’re projecting 100 to 110 riders this year, and we’re currently at 61 registered riders. We’ll be hosting some Information Sessions labeled as “Taste of Arava” or something like that, and aiming to do them in mid-May.




Rabbi Art Gould

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VaYetze – You can run but you can’t hide

Posted by rabbiart on November 23, 2012

Our long-time Gabbai pointed out this morning that the parshah opens and closes with Yakov on the run.  At the beginning, he is running from his brother.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he is running from what he did to his brother.  At the end, he is running from his father-in-law.  As Joe Louis said about Billy Conn “He can run but he can’t hide”.

Yakov dreams big, but he acts in small ways.  He dreams of HaShem giving him land and blessing through him all the families of the earth. He proclaims that the place where had rested in the gateway to heaven and names it Beth-El, the House of G-d. But he makes his pledge conditional on HaShem giving him food and clothing. And only if he is returned safely to his father’s house, will he accept HaShem as his G-d.

Yakov the trickster is then tricked mightily by his brother-in-law. He cries out “did I not work for you on account of Rachel? Why then have you tricked me?”.  Somewhere at this moment his brother Esav must have been laughing mightily.

Yakov works under Lavan.  He prospers, fathering sons with wives and handmaidens both, except for the barrenness of his beloved Rachel.  He grows so wealthy that he is tremendously resented.

Again he flees, but wherever he goes, there he is. The parshah ends with a soap-opera like cliffhanger, but we know that he will soon wrestle with a strange man/angel/G-d and never be the same.

Dreams of the night are big and bold and full of visions and wonder.  Typically they fade in the early morning light and are soon forgotten. The initial relationship of Lavan and Yakov is close, warm and familiar. It begins with a hug and a kiss. It ends with thievery,false accusations, and self-justification.

The lesson of this parshah is difficult to discern and hard to imagine. Bad behavior abounds. Although the second more famous dream does not occur until the following Shabbes, Yakov’s sojourn away from home is bracketed with dreams of the divine presence.  In between the dreams we read of all sorts of typical human scheming.  Yakov’s twenty years under his brother-in-law is a Torah story of who we are.  The dreams are stories of who we ought to be.  The Torah challenges us to remember our dreams at night, and live up to them in the light of the day.

Rabbi Art Gould

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The ceasefire is good, but it comes without illusions of peace

Posted by rabbiart on November 22, 2012

The comment-ary, which is to say comments made in the press, on Twitter and everywhere, is a frightening combination of ill-informed, wishful thinking or flying in the face of reality.  “Talk to Hamas” everyone says Israel should do.  “What Israel should do to make peace” is what everyone wants to proclaim.  How many have actually read the Hamas charter?  Mein Kampf was published 87 years ago, in 1925.  Most of the world reacted with either “where do we sign up” or looked the other way.

Read the Hamas charter (in English) here – – and then tell me, are Israeli’s and Jews who support having one Jewish country among the world’s ~200 nations supposed to think “they’re just kidding”!

Smarter people than I have observed that the only way Israelis can believe that even cold peace is possible is to disbelieve every proclamation made by its enemies.  Can anyone really think that Hamas is “just kidding”?

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Flying Rockets Fighting Brothers

Posted by rabbiart on November 15, 2012

It’s impossible this week to simply read and study the parshah as usual. Only 11 days ago I was cycling literally alongside the Israel – Egypt border. Two years ago and four years ago I ate breakfast overlooking theGaza strip and then cycled along thatborder.  Next year I’m invited to visit avillage in the heart of the West Bank as theworld calls it. Or as the Torah describes it the land where Avraham Avinu walked settled and ultimately buried his wife. And was himself peaceablyburiedby his two estranged sons; the fathers of two peoples in conflict.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, commenting on this week’s parshah, points out many ambiguities in a supposedly straightforward story about Jacob is the intended and true inheritor from Avraham and Yitzhak his fathers. (Click here to read article) He observes that a close reading of the text, a knowledge of dikduk, and the trope itself illuminate the different ways the text can be interpreted. He writes”More precisely, we have here an example of one of the most remarkable of all the Torah’s narrative devices – the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past.” 

We live in the present moment by moment but only when we can look back can we understand what we have lived through. Are we in this moment at the beginning of an increased conflict that will take a heavy toll on all sides for some unendurable period of time? Or could we be (please merciful G-d) at the moment when both sides walk to the edge of the cliff and make a permanent change of course.

It is impossible to know.

When Jacob returns from his twenty years with Lavan he prepares for an encounter that will live up to his worst fears about his brother. Instead he is met with an embrace and a kiss. But in the Torah as we have received it there are dots over the word for miss. Scribal error or important clue to indicate the kiss and embrace are not sincere? Is Esau’s offer to accompany Jacob a sincere gesture of brotherly love or a veiled threat of violence yet to come?

Imagine Jacob’s reaction had Esau’s greeting been an angry and threatening. Could Jacob have put aside his fear and greeted his brother with love? It is hard to imagine. Yet this is what Israel is asked to do. A madman in Iran regularly proclaims that Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth. A bordering ‘country’ declares it will never accept Israel’s right to exist. Are Israelis and Jews the world over supposed to react by saying we know you’re just kidding around?

But I also know that if I were Palestinian, or living in the Gaza strip I would have a very different story and point of view.

When all else fails, seek refuge in the occasional wisdom of rock and roll.

There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…and later…there’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everbody’s wrong.

Jacob did his brother wrong but ultimately they reconciled, or so we can choose to read the story. Hopefully, bimherah uvyamenu, we will live to tell a story of warring brothers come to peace. Because as we will soon recite in the Chanukah blessing, HaShem did not only create miracles in those olden days but also in our time as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Reflections on the past – Israel Ride 2012

Posted by rabbiart on November 13, 2012

One week later, plus a day, I’m still thinking about the experience of the 2012 Israel Ride. It was an up and down experience for me, no pun intended.  Arriving late because of Hurricane Sandy, joining the Lost Tribe on the first day, missing the last big downhill on the last day on the advice of the paramedic. Bed bug bites, I think, in the Eilat Hotel motzei ride so to speak.

All of it pales in comparison to meeting someone who is a bigger DeadHead than I am. And with one of the most beautiful self-made tallis I have ever seen or could imagine. Conversations with Abeer and seeing the importance and value of seeing the so-called “other” as not other but just another human being.

Of course I’m avidly and actively recruiting not just friends but some of my cycle riding co-workers to come join the fun next year. And I bagged my first $100 donation from a co-worker who has always said that he never supports causes.  Why?  Because the peace making work resonated with him like crazy. His donor attribution thing says “in support of peace”.

During the period of reading Breshit there is something in every parshah that leaps off the page in connection with the struggle over this at one and the same time promised and feels like cursed land. So much conflict, so much fighting.  When we read in the Torah of brothers struggling in the womb, and then see how rabbinic literature felt it necessary to lionize one and demonize the other, it’s hard to hold onto the belief that peace will come.

The Bike Ride is incredibly effective therapy for strengthening hope.  That’s why I’m taking the cure again next year.

Rabbi Art Gould

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A vision for the Jewish people

Posted by rabbiart on November 11, 2012

Waiting in Ben Gurion airport for our flight home I bought three books. Two were pulp fiction: one was significant. It is Future Tense: A vision for Jews and  and Judaism in the global culture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his intro he writes that Jews must go back to first principles and inquire again into the purpose of our people. He goes on to say that the first step is for us to abandon the linked notions of victimhood and a life informed by fear. Rather, we should live lives of faith but not, he says as lonely men of faith.

Elsewhere he references the work of Chabad and wonders why the Rebbi (his inspiration for becoming a Rabbi) chose to send emissaries all over the earth to wherever Jews are found. He says that “if the Nazis had hunted down every Jew out of hate, he would send his disciples to search out every Jew in love.

Upon reading this passage I was reminded of a story told to me by our friend Ilana Meallem. She had gone somewhere and was confronted by a man who attempted to choke her. With his hands still around her neck she said to him “it’s OK, I love you”. He released her and broke into tears.

The Arava Institute is one place, certainly not the only one in Israel, where members of societies at war with each other are choosing to put aside fear and hatred and act out of hope and faith.

Again, this is the dual storytelling of the Torah. What is and what ought to be. Avraham Avinu is the original man of faith. Rabbi Sacks writes eloquently how we – the Jewish people – need to find and reclaim our original story. To choose life, to live in hope and become again a light into the nations.

I think this is why the Arava, Alyn hospital, machsom watch and similar organizations in Israel are so important. They are living the Torah’s story of who we are supposed to be and become.

In our parshah this week we see the (potential) consequences of living in fear. The famine comes round again. Isaac and family take refuge in Gerar where there is food. He says that Rivkah is his sister and not his wife. Avimelech sees them “sporting” and inquires why Isaac has misled his people, because one of them might have attempted to have sex with her, thereby committing a great sin. Avimelech offers explicit protection by proclaiming to his people that no one should mess with Isaac and Rivkah. Immediately Isaac grows in prosperity one hundredfold. His prosperity is so great that now fear’s cousin jealously tears its ugly head. The cycle continues once more.

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Chayei Sarah – A Story of How We Ought to Be.

Posted by rabbiart on November 9, 2012

Some say “The Torah is a Commentary on the World, and The World is a Commentary on the Torah”.  I like to say that the Torah tells two stories.  It tells the story of who we are, and the story of who we ought to be. Fresh in my mind is the invitation to visit my new friend Abeer’s family and village not too far north of Hebron.  Also in my mind is the recent U.S. election and the period of intense negotiation that our elected leaders will hopefully engage in during the coming months to address some of the pressing problems of our country.

Negotiation is in the air.

So of course this week’s Torah portion – Chaye Sarah – opens with a negotiation story that takes place in and around Hebron.  Could it possibly be any other way? This is the Torah showing us how we should be. Avraham acts humbly, the Hittites ask generously, Avraham responds by insisting on fair payment, and after a general reverse tug of war, the deal is settled and Avraham buries Sarah.

Having settled his past, as it were, with the burial of his wife, Avraham now turns his attention toward insuring the future.  He arranges to get a wife for his beloved son Isaac.

We get a foreshadowing of a different dynamic when Rivka’s brother Lavan is mentioned, especially since we have read the Torah bebore. But conveniently, the parsha ends just before we begin reading the full episode that tells us – warts and all – a story of who we are, and very much not how we should be.

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