Sunday, April 18, 2021

Portion Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: M'chilah/Forgiveness

This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, marks the halfway point of the Torah cycle, and it stands at the center of the text both geographically and metaphorically.  The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains many of the best-known moral imperatives from our tradition.  It commands us to strive for holiness, keep Shabbat, care for the poor, and honor the stranger in our midst.  It is also the source of the famous teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’rayechah camochah).

The words immediately preceding that “Golden Rule” are less widely recognized but of equal importance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  This implies that in order to love our neighbor, we must be willing to forgive their wrongdoings and not dwell on past hurts.  Of course, this is much easier said than done.  We tend to remember every time people hurt or slight us, much more vividly than we recall their acts of lovingkindness on our behalf.  This propensity to dwell on old injuries and injustices can easily lead to an obsession with victimhood that destroys our ability to move forward in our lives.

Recognizing this difficulty, Maimonides notes: “The desire for revenge is a very bad trait and we must do our best to relinquish it.  One way is to realize that many things that prompt our wrath are vanity and emptiness and are not worth seeking revenge for.”  To which the late, great contemporary teacher Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.  Why would anybody allow that?”

It is no accident that we read Kedoshim, with its injunction against grudge-bearing and vengeance, in this season of spring.  The omnipresent rebirth in the natural world reminds us that we, too, can start anew in our personal relationships.  And the journey from Pesach to Shavuot encourages us to leave behind the narrow places of heart and spirit that are our Egypts, our Mitzrayim.  Our path to Mount Sinai—and true freedom—starts with getting those destructive, rent-free tenants out of our heads.

Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week’s midah/character trait is forgiveness, or m’chilah.  

It is customary to offer forgiveness every night before going to sleep.  The traditional bedtime prayers include this passage:

Source of the Universe:
I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me
And whoever has done me any wrong,
Whether it was deliberately or by accident,
Whether it was done by word or by deed
May no one be punished on my account

For the rest of this week, make this prayer part of your nightly routine.  Use it as an opportunity to make an examination of your conscience for the day.  You might do this following the practice of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who taught: 

Check your relationships and make an act of forgiveness.
Recalling whatever frustration and hurt was experienced during the day, at the hands of others, visualize them written on slips of paper.  Rip these up one by one, fully forgiving those who hurt you as you say the words of the prayer.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Portion Tazria-Metzora: Lovingkindness/Chesed

Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we give.  

This is why Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) is considered the greatest of our traditional commentators.  Many of the sages who followed him strongly disagree with the explanations he offers to resolve difficult Torah passages—yet all recognize his genius in knowing the perfect questions to pose about them.

So what is the proper question to consider with this week’s double portion from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora?  The text focuses on tzora’at, a leprosy-like skin affliction.  Most of the Rabbis ask: “Why?”  They struggle to explain the etiology of this mysterious affliction.  The subtext of their inquiry is: “What causes people come down with tzora’at?”  Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others.  Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”   

But I believe that for all of their wisdom, in this case, the classic commentaries ask the wrong question.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for bad behavior.” Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.

In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?”  They are, instead: What do we do now?  How can I help?  Which is the path of compassion?  Where are the possibilities of healing and love?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness.  We do well to heed his words:

When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions?  When the answers call us to compassionate action.


Our character trait to develop this week is lovingkindness, which is defined in Hebrew as chesed.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai teaches that this trait is the very heart of Torah.  He notes: “Torah begins with an act of lovingkindness and ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says: God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them.  It ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says, God buried Moses in the valley. . . .”


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Make a visit, a phone call, or send a card every day this week, as an act of lovingkindness

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Portion Shemini: Mindfulness/Muda'ut

Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth.
  (Leviticus 11:44-5)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is devoted in large part to the laws of kashrut.  The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is, essentially, a long list of permitted and forbidden foods.  For mammals and sea creatures, the criteria are clear: we can eat only animals with cloven hoofs that chew their cud, and fish that possess both fins and scales.  Reptiles and amphibians are prohibited, as are all insects except locusts.  Birds are handled on an individual basis, without any specific criteria, though birds of prey are generally prohibited.  Chicken is in; hawks, eagles, and owls are out.  

Interestingly, the Torah gives no rationale for any of this.  But long after the fact, countless sages and scholars have offered explanations for our tradition’s dietary laws.  These conjectures include health/hygiene, spiritual discipline, the preservation of Jewish identity, and a reminder that all of life is holy and eating the flesh of any once-living creature is a form of moral compromise.

I find varying degrees of merit in all of these conjectures but for me, the most compelling reason to keep kosher to some degree or another is that it can be a powerful practice of mindfulness.  When we pay full attention to what we eat—including where it came from and how it was produced—we transform a universal animalistic necessity into a sacred act.  

Mindful eating practices include traditional kosher laws, ethical considerations around the treatment of animals and human food service workers, and production and consumption choices that minimize our carbon footprint and counter catastrophic climate change.  By eating with intention and awareness—as Torah urges us to do—we increase the holiness in our lives and help to heal our broken world.

In the end, of course, we all make our own choices, and we should be careful not to be harshly judgmental of others. It is essential to recognize that on our collective Jewish journey, one’s chosen path is often not the same as one’s neighbors’.  But the choices that we make should be informed and well-considered. As Rabbi Kushner concludes; “I don’t know if God cares about what I eat, but I know that I feel closer to God when I care about what I eat.”


The Hebrew term from mindfulness—muda’ut—is a contemporary word based upon the ancient biblical term for knowingla-da’at.  To know something truly and deeply is to play close attention over a significant period of time.  To gulf down a hamburger from a fast food restaurant is the antithesis of such knowing; mindfulness in eating asks us to consider the sources of our food and to savor its flavor. 


Mussar Practice for this Week  

Pay real attention to what you eat.  Add a level of kosher and/or ethical awareness to your normal food consumption.  Offer a blessing or acknowledgment before or after eating.

Slow down and savor every bite.