Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Table Talk -- Acharei Mos Kedoshim 5767

אחרי מות-קדושים תשס"ז

Where does meat come from? While you and I know that it comes from a cow, or a sheep, as your three-year-old the very same question. It would not surprise me at all if she answered: “One Stop Kosher.” After all, if you’ve never seen a animal slaughtered, and never witnessed the salting and soaking of the meat to remove the blood, how would you know that meat did grow on trees shrink-wrapped in plastic?

Our parshah relays the commandment of כיסוי הדם – the covering of the blood. After the slaughter of an animal, God commands us to cover the blood of that animal that spilled on the ground with dirt. But, this rule doesn’t apply to all animals. The Torah divides kosher animals into two basic categories: בהמות – domesticated animals such as cows and sheep, and חיות – undomesticated animals like deer. The rule of כיסוי הדם – covering of blood -- applies only to fowl and חיות – undomesticated animals. Why must we only cover the blood of the undomesticated animal, but not the blood of the domesticated animal?

Kli Yakkar suggests that the root of this commandment stresses the need for us to be sensitive and appreciative of the nature of blood. We find this commandment in the context of the prohibition to eat any type of blood. The Torah stresses that blood represents the spirit of all living things. While God permits us to eat the flesh of other animals, the spirit belongs to Him alone, so God forbids us from consuming any type of blood. Therefore, because the Jewish people regularly offered the blood of domesticated animals as sacrifices to God, there was no need for any additional prohibition. We would never keep for ourselves that which we offered to God alone. But because we never offer חיות – undomesticated animals – as sacrifices to God, we must carry out the additional action of covering the blood to remind us that the animals belong, first and foremost, to God Himself.

That leaves me to wonder: while we might have appreciated the value – and ownership – of blood during the times of the Temple when we offered sacrifices, is there any way for us to compensate and have that same level of understanding and appreciation today? Isn’t it interesting that our society, with all its infatuation with blood and violence (see my sermon from last week), goes out of its way to insulate itself from any kind of real blood?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Table Talk -- Tazria Metzora 5767

תזריע מצורע תשס"ז

When the Cohen declares the metzora­ – a person afflicted with tzara’as – to be healed, before the metzora can return to the Jewish camp and mainstream society he must undergo a process of atonement. The Torah teaches us that during this ritual he must use two birds, a branch of cedar wood, a branch from a hyssop bush and a red string. Why must he take these particular elements?

The Midrash explains that because tzara’as afflicts an individual due to spiritual failings, each element in the atonement process carries an important message to him. Our rabbis identity lashon hara – slander and evil talk – as a primary cause of tzara’as. Thus, he must bring birds, animals known for their propensity to chirp and chatter, to remind him of what initiated his ailment. Furthermore, the cedar – a tall and strong tree – remind him of the haughtiness and self-importance that allowed him to speak ill of another and put himself in his precarious predicament. Finally, the hyssop bush, a low-growing shrub, reminds the sinner that only because he lowered himself did God heal him from his ailment.

What’s the red string for? That’s a good question to discuss around the table, but I’ll give you a hint: think Yom Kippur.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Table Talk for Shemini 5767

We all look for signs: signs that we’re doing the right thing, signs of God’s hand in the world. But, while we wait for God, the Torah actually tells us in this parshah how to get God to appear before us.
After giving Aharon complete instructions for the sacrifices that would offer atonement for the Jewish people, the Torah tells us that they took all the necessary ingredients for the sacrifice, “and gathered the entire community, and they stood before God.” (Vayikra 9:5) The Moshe said, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה' תַּעֲשׂוּ--וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם, כְּבוֹד ה' – “this is the thing that God commanded you to do, that the glory of God may appear to you.” (9:6) Simply put: do this, and God will appear. The only question is: do what?
First and foremost Moshe is speaking about the sacrifices. If Aharon properly performs the sacrificial rituals, God promises to appear. But we cannot offer sacrifices today. Can something else bring God’s presence? Fortunately, different commentators understand “this thing” in new ways. The Midrash teaches that it refers to circumcision. Ohr Hachayim, in a beautiful piece, suggests that God wants the people to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves to stand “before God” (see verse 5 above). Yet, perhaps we can offer an even simpler solution.
Immediately preceding the promise of Providential appearance, God tells Moshe to gather the people. Maybe that’s “the thing.” The more the people – the Jewish people – gather together as one unit, the greater our ability to bring God’s Providence into the world.