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Israel, A Zoom Kabballat Shabbat, Class Reminder, & Last Week's Parashah

1. Israel -- Today is Yom ha-Zikaron -- Israel's Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers -- sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, relatives and friends. The War of Independence (1948), the Suez Campaign (1956), the Six-day War (June 1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973) and defending against various uprisings and terror attacks.

Tonight begins Yom ha-Atz'ma'ut -- Israel's Independence Day -- May 14, 1948, but the Hebrew Iyar 5.

This year, as in the US, the celebrations will be private. The rebirth of the State of Israel is, in my view, the second greatest story in history -- after the Exodus. Form what was created, how people unfit for its climate worked the land and died there, under the conditions it was created, including 6 million murdered and so many displaced, because of what happened in the UN and how it might never have been, and how Hebrew was revived, how the nation survived and thrived, one of the world's most giving countries -- and the most per capita (medical technology for one), how it took in so many immigrants from such diversity, how it fulfilled Prophecy and gave further life to ancient Jewish history, how it did so even though it was then poor, and now it is anything but poor -- in only three-five generations ... the list goes on and on ... that's my take.

Today is the 19th day of the Omer.

2. A congregant suggested Zoom learning of Shabbat Z'mirot; others have asked for some services.

Beginning this Friday, I will lead abbreviated Kabballat Shabbat services (including L'cha Dodi; though not Shabbat evening services) and the singing of a few Zemirot @ 6:30 to about 7:00. The benefits include -- spiritual ones as we enter Shabbat, congregational togetherness before Shabbat, and learning about something that we will sing. You will need to register for this series: Click here to register. Please sign on to Zoom each Friday at least 5 minutes before so we will not be delayed.

3. This week's new classes begin Wednesday night and Thursday noon. Our registration numbers are good; if you would like to join, click here to register for Parashat Ha'Shavua (Wednesdays, 7:00 PM) and click here to register for Mitzvah 613 (Thursdays, 12:00 noon).

4. Last week's Parashah -- Tazria-Metzora -- is one of those which many find so ancient, so technical, and perhaps so irrelevant, that they have trouble engaging in it. In some ways, it may be one of the most relevant during this coronavirus pandemic period in our lives.

Leviticus 13:1-3 -- When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the kohen or to one of his sons, the kohanim. The kohen shall examine the affection on the skin of his body ..." (NJPS; I retain the Hebrew kohen instead of their translation, "priest.")

The Torah goes on to describe in detail various types of swelling, rashes, or discolorations that manifest themselves on our bodies. The kohen investigates the skin for one category -- tzara'at. If it is a certain type, tzara'at, the kohen pronounces him to be "impure" and the affected person is sent out of the camp. Sometimes the kohen determines it is not tzara'at, and in other cases, it is yet unknown, and the person is quarantined for seven days, and re-examined. Tzara'at even extended to clothes (13:47-59) and, when finally in the Promised Land, to houses (14:33-57). Aside from separating the potentially contagious person, a ritual for purity is described in 14:1-32, and the person was declared "pure" and permitted to re-enter the camp.

We are most familiar with other roles of kohanim, such as offering the offerings (Leviticus 1:1ff). But kohanim had a teaching and ruling role in the biblical age, well before religious leadership transferred to Rabbis, students of the Torah texts. Here, he determined whether one was "pure" or "impure" or, as other translations have it, "contaminated" or "not contaminated," and contagious.

The narrative appears to be a mix of ancient medical procedure -- diagnosis, including noting subtle differences, and with deep concern for contagion, as well as ritual means to provide religious meaning and transition. The terminology of "pure" and "impure" reflects a ritual aspect, as does the role of the kohen, even as the situation has all the characteristics of being medical.

ArtScroll, reflecting a right-ish rabbinical take, abandons any notion of the medical aspect. (Note that ArtScroll employs the Ashkenazic "tzaraas" in contrast to the Israeli Hebrew, which employs the Sephardic and undoubtedly ancient pronunciation (or much closer to it) "tzara'at.")

ArtScroll: "For hundreds of years, the popular translation of צרעת [tzaraas] has been “leprosy,” and it was commonly accepted that the prevention of the disease’s spread was the reason for the quarantine of a suspected victim of tzaraas and the exclusion from the camp of a confirmed מצורע [metzora], the person smitten with the malady.

"R’ Hirsch demonstrates at length and conclusively that both of these notions are completely erroneous. … if the reason for the metzora’s confinement is to prevent contagion, then some of the laws would be ludicrous. … if there were a danger of contagion, it would be irrational for the afflicted household items to be excluded from quarantine! In perhaps the most telling example, the Talmud teaches that if the symptoms of tzaraas appear on a newlywed or during a festival season, the Kohen does not examine the affliction or declare it to be tamei, in order not to interfere with celebration. But if the purpose of these laws is to prevent the spread of disease, it would be absolutely imperative to enforce the laws at times of great overcrowding and mingling!

"Clearly, as the Sages teach, tzaraas is not a bodily disease, but the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment designed to show the malefactor that he must mend his ways. The primary cause of tzaraas is the sin of slander …"

It is true, that linking tzara'at with slander, as is done with Miriam in Numbers 12, is a part of Torah teaching and rabbinic understanding. Rabbinic teaching emphasized meaning. But we do not have to dispense, as ArtScroll does, with the p'shat, that contagion from disease, even if the science was unknown, was a serious consideration in last week's parashah.

Such an approach reflects the Torah teaching that danger to health is a serious and legitimate concern of our religion. We do not minimize it, and depending on its severity, safeguarding life can and does override other aspects of ritual laws. On Shabbat, for example, all laws are suspended when there is a reasonable judgment that life is threatened, and some laws are suspended when non-life-threatening health is impaired. In some less serious cases, the law remains and we are required to bear it.

We can find great meaning in both -- (a) the serious concern for health and (b) the legitimate rabbinic approach to seek within ourselves what signals disease or other harm provide us to ask, "How can we be better in the eyes of God?" Surely, the ills of our society are challenged -- unrestrained and pervasive slander, excessive materialism, gratuitous hatred, crude immorality, neglect of the most vulnerable in our society, the taking for granted of the worth of faith and religion -- among them.

This period of our lives, and the lives of the entire world, requires us to safeguard both our physical and moral health. May God bring us relief from the physical threats and may we seek God for our souls and the collective soul of our communities, our nation, and our world.

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