Monday, March 21, 2011

Skin and Tongue / Parshat Tazria

  • Parshat Tazria deals with its namesake, tzara’at, a group of skin ailments that were deemed to cause ritually impurity.
  • Of the 43 sins enumerated in the traditional Al Cheit confessional of Yom Kippur, eleven are sins committed through speech.
These two facts are intimately connected in the minds of the Rabbis.

First, a few words about tzara’at. The term tzara’at is often erroneously translated “leprosy.” Leprosy is known in the medical world as Hansen’s disease, a conditional of the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract. Tzara’at is a biblical term that covers a variety of diseases that cause sores and eruptions of the skin, and can also affect clothing and houses. Tzara’at conveys ritually impurity and therefore its diagnoses and “treatment” fall within the domain of the priests. The rituals surrounding a person afflicted with tzara’at are complex. Here’s a sample from the beginning of our parashah:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair – head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. (Leviticus 14:1-9)
The Rabbis had difficulty making sense of tzara’at. Seeking to identify a cause, they explain that Miriam is stricken with tzara’at (Numbers, chapter 12) in consequence of speaking out about Moses. They explain that she is guilty of lashon hara (evil speech, gossip), which they derive by a slight of hand: metzora’at (“stricken with tzara’at) sounds like motzi shem ra (spreading malicious lies about someone).

Lashon hara (gossip), rekhilut (tale bearing), and motzi shem ra (spreading malicious lies about someone) – all forms of objectionable speech – cause emotional damage and compromise the integrity of many. The Rabbis railed against lashon hara, knowing at the same time (or precisely because they understand) that it is in human nature and difficult to curtain.
In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Arakhin 15 we find this explanation:
Tzara’at was a “miraculous” disease that occurred when the Bet ha-Mikdash was still standing. If a person spoke evil about someone else, first his home was affected. If he did not repent, his clothes were affected. If he still did not repent, his body was ultimately affected. He had to separate from civilization. He was publicly proclaimed an "impure person" as a result of his evil speech.
Midrash Tanchuma, however, addresses the ethical underpinnings. While the claim that lashon hara makes one worthy of death is hyperbolic, the ethical principle cannot be overstated: we can do enormous harm with our words.
If a person involves himself in lashon hara, he makes himself worthy of death, because lashon hara is as serious as murder, for one who murders only takes one life, while the bearer of lashon hara kills three: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is said.
The last line bears considerable attention: the bearer of lashon hara kills three: the one who says it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is said. When we speak gossip, tell stories about other people, or tell outright lies about them, three are damaged. Then one who says it compromises his dignity by stooping to a low level, marking him as untrustworthy. Certainly the one who is the subject of gossip and lies is harmed. We know we shouldn’t talk about others, and we know that when we do they are harmed. But how often have we considered that being a listener, an audience, makes lashon hara possible? The one who listens is guilty because without an audience, the speaker would not commit lashon hara. Alice Roosevelt Longworth is said to have quipped, “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.” As difficult as it is, we need to resist sitting beside the Alices of the world. It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible.

The Sages tell us that whoever engages in lashon hara, God says of him: “He and I cannot inhabit the same world. (Arakhin 15b). I think they mean for us to copy God’s example and distance ourselves as best we can from lashon hara.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Filling the Barrel / Parshat Shemini

The images of the pain and suffering in Japan caused by the earthquake and tsunami are devastating to see. How are we to respond?

The Jerusalem Talmud records a debate between Akiba and Ben Azzai, second century sages and contemporaries.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). R. Akiba says: This is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of humanity (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle of Torah. (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4)
While there are many ways to interpret the distinction Akiba and Ben Azzai make here, I want to offer one that speaks to the question of how we respond to suffering and devastation halfway around the globe. Let’s begin with Ben Azzai, who tells us that Jewish ethics derive from an appreciation of our common humanity, our connection to all people on earth. R. Akiba seems say that this is more than any one human being can truly feel or act upon; a more realistic and modest goal is to feel kinship with those around us – our “neighbors” – and to act on that connection. If each of us responds to those in our “neighborhood,” and others do the same, our neighborhoods are sufficiently overlapping that, at least in theory, everyone’s needs can be met.

Today, R. Akiba and Ben Azzai meet on the plane of modern technology, where our “neighborhood” is global. Thanks to the Internet, cameras convey video at lightning speed, and together with 24/7 newsfeed, we are instantly and continually keenly aware of what happens on the other side of Planet Earth. It is all piped into our living rooms, iPads, and droid phones.

Parshat Shemini begins:
On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a purification offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites, saying: Take a he-goat for purification offerings; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you.
They brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded, and the whole community came forward and stood before the Lord. (Leviticus 9:1-5)
How is it possible that the entire community fit in the small space in front of the Tent of Meeting? Is this merely a fanciful exaggeration. Or is Torah teaching us something about the community?

A story:
Once there was a town where it was the custom that when a mayor died, the new mayor would place a large barrel outside the front door of his home. Everyone in town would bring a bottle of wine sometime during the night to contribute to the barrel. The following day, the town would gather to celebrate the installation of their new mayor and together drink the wine in the barrel.

It happened that the mayor died. The new mayor set out a barrel as custom dictated. The people of the town thought, “Why should I bring a bottle of wine? If I pour one bottle of water into such a big barrel, who would ever know?” Throughout the night, people came in the dark and emptied bottles of water into the barrel.

In the morning, the mayor dipped a cup into the barrel to initiate the festivities. He knew immediately, even before sipping it, that the barrel was filled with water. Nonetheless, he took a sip, then another sip, and announced, “I can tell that someone in town contributed a bottle of water rather than wine. Moreover, I knew who that person is. Rather than announce aloud who it is, I want to give that person an opportunity to correct the deed. Therefore, we will postpone our celebration until tomorrow. Tonight I will place another barrel outside my house so that person can bring a bottle of wine and tomorrow we shall all celebrate together.”

That night, each and every person in town came in the dark and emptied a bottle of wine into the barrel. They came all night long under the cover of darkness, ashamed that they had expected others to contribute but had failed themselves to make a donation. Only after pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel did each person feel that he or she had made a proper contribution.

The next day the town held a festival more joyous than ever before.
We each have a contribution to make that truly matters. No one of us has to fill the barrel, but each of us has a bottle of wine to bring.

Last week we read Parshat Tzav. It’s curious how this parashah, which describes the initiation of worship in the Tabernacle, begins with Moses (The Lord spoke to Moses saying… -- Leviticus 6:1), then enlarges the circle to include the priests (This is the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the occasion of his anointment… -- Leviticus 6:12), then enlarges the circle further to encompass the Israelites (Speak to the Israelite people thus… -- Leviticus 7:22), and ends on this note: …and assemble the whole community at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 8:3).

Torah teaches us to begin locally and grow outward in our awareness, concern, and compassion, until we encompass the “whole community.”

Parshat Shemini, which we read this week, picks up where Tzav leaves off (as quoted above):
They brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded, and the whole community came forward and stood before the Lord. (Leviticus 9:1-5)
Shemini (which means “eighth”) tells us about the eighth day – the day after the seven-day inauguration of the Tabernacle.

What’s the big deal about the eighth day? The seven-day initiation celebration mirrors the creation of the world. God created the universe in seven days; the Tabernacle, whose rites will keep the world spinning, is initiated in a seven-day ceremony. The eighth day is the day of completion, perfection, beginning anew at a higher level. (So, too, with brit milah: a child lives for seven days, reproducing the Creation in his own short life, and then on the eighth day he is completed, perfected through circumcision, and begins his covenantal life.) The Talmud links Creation and the Tabernacle. Megillah 10b tells us that the day the Tabernacle was erected was as joyous for God as the day when heaven and earth were created.

The eighth day is the new beginning when we assemble together and all of us stand before the Lord. It is the ideal. Perhaps we cannot feel toward everyone as we feel toward those in our local neighborhood, but we can respond nonetheless. R. Akiba’s and Ben Azzai’s principle have a meeting ground in our actions.

Shortly after the disaster in Japan, many organizations in the Jewish community opened boxes to accept donations. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ( is accepting donations. Within days, ZAKA was on the ground in Japan doing what it does so well ( The Associate in Baltimore responded quickly ( We live in a global neighborhood. Let’s bring wine to the barrel.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Holy versus Holier-than-thou / Parshat Tzav

SPECIAL NOTE: If you are looking for avenues for making donations to help the victims of the earthquake and tsunami
in Japan, please consider:
The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
The Associate of Baltimore
May the victims in Japan soon know comfort and consolation.

When my children were young, they had clothing reserved for messy activities like painting, working with clay, and playing in the dirt. My husband and I reserved t-shirts and shorts for indoor house painting – the shirts “artistically” reflect every paint color we’ve ever used. We wouldn’t have considered wearing good clothes for dirty tasks.

There was messy work to do in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Among the messy daily chores was cleaning the ashes off the altar pyre, where many sacrifices were burned to ashes each day. You might think that the priests would reserve work clothes for this dirty job, but that’s not the case. Torah tells us that they were especially instructed by God to wear their priestly linen raiment:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments, and put on other clothing, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. (Leviticus 6:1-4)
The priest did not participate only in the exalted and awe-inspiring elements of the sacrificial cult. They got their hands dirty, too. When the Second Temple stood, the mitzvah of removing the ashes – called Terumat HaDeshen – was originally undertaken by whichever priest arose early in the morning. In time, however, there evolved a daily footrace up the ramp to the altar for the privilege of the dirty chore of removing the ashes. Even the inglorious tasks that contributed to the holy work of the Temple were considered an honor and a privilege. I think of that when I have to do something I don’t want to do. I ask myself: Is there a holy component to this? Who will benefit from what I should be doing? That helps me find motivation not only to get the task done, but also to see that the potential for holiness is inherent in every act. Much of Jewish living – and here I mean the Jewish attitude and values for living, not the particular obligations and rituals of daily life – is to sanctify the mundane, to find in everything a connection to the bigger picture and to God.
It is also possible to go too far and end up in a dangerous place. The human psyche is complex and we often have a tough time keeping things in balance. Mundane and even banal chores can indeed be, or lead to, acts of holiness. But when our thinking becomes skewed, rather than approach tasks with humility, we risk poisoning the very sanctity of the act. This happens when we transform what should be a sacred act into a means for boosting our own status (recall the joke whose punch line is, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”).

The Talmud illustrates this with a disturbing and graphic story that presumably occurred during the Second Temple period. The footraces up the ramp had become increasingly competitive. The young priests who participated in them lost sight of the fact that removing the ashes was a mitzvah, a sacred task. They were fixated on winning. For them it became an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. One day, the race erupted into violence: one young priest thrust a knife into his competitor to prevent him from reaching the altar first. Here’s the grisly account from Yoma 23a:
It once happened that two [of the priests] were neck and neck as they ran and ascended the ramp [to the altar]. One of them came within four cubits [of the top of the ramp]. His colleague took a knife and drove it into his heart.

R. Tzaddok stood on the steps of the Hall and cried, “Our Brothers, O House of Israel, listen! Behold it says: If a corpse will be found on the land… your elders and judges shall go out… (Deuteronomy 21:1-2) [to perform the ritual of the eglah arufah to effect atonement]. As for us: upon whom [rests the responsibility] to bring an eglah arufah? The city? [The priests who guard] the courtyard? All the people burst out crying.

The father of the boy came and found him writhing [but not yet dead]. He said: “Behold he is your atonement. My son is still writhing so the knife did not become ritually unclean.”

This teaches you that they regarded the ritual purity of the vessels more seriously than murder. Thus [Scripture] states: Manasseh also shed much innocent blood, until he filled Jerusalem from end to end… (2 Kings 21:16).
This account is unlikely to be historical. It is most likely a constructed story – based on a reality that the footraces had become excessively competitive – that provides the Rabbis the opportunity to teach us about misplaced priorities.

What happens is clear enough: a squadron of young priests races up the altar ramp toward the pile of ashes. The one who arrives first wins the privilege of Terumat HaDeshen for that day. So intense is the competition, that one young man thrusts a knife into the chest of another to prevent him from winning the competition.

What are we to make of the bizarre responses to this act of horrific violence in the name of a sacred task?

R. Tzaddok, viewing the race from below, fails to show concern for the life of the young man who has been knifed. Instead, he expresses concerned that his corpse will convey tum’ah (ritual impurity) to the Temple area, and asks how atonement should be affected in this unusual circumstance. He cites a completely inappropriate verse in Deuteronomy that explains how atonement is affected in a case where a corpse is found in a field outside town and it is not known who the murderer is. Torah tells us that the elders gather to perform a rite of atonement through which they declare they are not responsible for the death. R. Tzaddok is asking: who should perform that ritual? In this case, the murderer is known and there is a multitude of witnesses. Citing this verse from Deuteronomy suggests that in addition to allowing the inappropriate race to take place each day, the priests in charge are unwilling to take responsibility for the violence that ensues.

R. Tzaddok’s tragically misplaced priorities are shared by the people present that morning. Please don’t miss the cruel irony: the people are crying not because innocent has been shed in a vulgar perversion of the sacred rituals of the Temple, but because they’re worried about tum’ah (ritual impurity) and ritual atonement.

This brings us to the father’s enigmatic statement. It becomes apparent that he is the only one who has approached the young man’s body to see if he is, in fact, dead! He sees that his son is still alive. Responding to the concern about tum’ah (ritual impurity), he assures those present that so long as the boy remains alive (writhing in pain on the ground!) the knife in his chest is not yet tamei (ritually impure) and therefore does not convey tum’ah. The father is delivering a chilling and (from the perspective of the Rabbis well-placed) condemnation of priorities so skewed that they are an utter perversion of Jewish values.

The Rabbis echo the father’s condemnation with these words, “This teaches you that they regarded the ritual purity of the vessels more seriously than murder.” They also add a verse from Second Kings concerning King Manasseh of Judah who ruled for more than four decades in the seventh century B.C.E. Manasseh reversed the religious reforms of his father Hezekiah, brought idol worship into the Temple, consigned his son to fire, and practiced necromancy. He also killed a great many Jews to consolidate his power. The Rabbis quote only the first half of 2 Kings 12:16. It’s always worthwhile to check out the entire verse, as well as the context, to get a fuller sense of what the Sages have in mind. Here’s the whole verse:
Manasseh also shed much innocent blood, until he filled Jerusalem from end to end – besides the sin he committed in causing Judah to do what was displeasing to the Lord.
Manasseh, as the leader, led others astray. The Rabbis warn us that those in authority have a sacred responsibility not only to do the right thing, but also to model that for others.

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235) comments on this verse:
Menasseh had systematically destroyed all the Torah scrolls and alienated the nation so thoroughly from the Torah, that the people were completely unfamiliar with its contents.
King Menasseh is used in our story – in Yoma 23a – as the poster-boy for people in possession of power and authority who utterly pervert the values of Torah and lead others to do the same, to such an extent that they don’t even know what Torah is about. What a fitting verse to quote as the epilogue to this story!

The mitzvah of Terumat HaDeshen (clearing away the ashes) teaches that even banal tasks can be sacred – indeed everything in our universe and our lives has the potential for holiness if approached with the right attitude. At the same time, it is altogether too easy for that attitude to be drowned by human tendencies to compete and achieve status, in which case not only is the holiness lost, but sacred rituals become unholy perversions of Torah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stuff and Sacrifices / Parshat Vayikra

One of George Carlin’s funniest routines is about “Stuff.” You can watch it here. “That’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff… That’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” Humans are the only animals that keep “stuff” they don’t need. Other species, if they squirrel away anything at all, are likely to keep primarily food, and only what they need. People, however, have a complicated relationship with the material world. The psychology of “stuff” is exceptionally complicated. We ascribe meaning to what we have, what we don’t have, what we want, what we must give up, what we have lost, what we can and cannot regain, who gives us stuff, what we give to others. We judge others and ourselves by the metric of possessions.

This week we begin reading sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. In a way, it’s all about stuff. It’s about the stuff – animals, grains, oil, wine – we give to God in the form of sacrificial offerings. The mitzvot relating to the sacrificial offerings in the Mishkan (and later the Temple in Jerusalem) constitute approximately 100 of the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Leviticus reads like a pocket manual for priests. Picture a small book with tiny print encased in a vinyl cover. Imagine every kohane (priest) keeps a copy in his back pocket. It’s filled with instructions about every sacrifice (sin offerings, guilt offerings, peace offerings, purification offerings, compulsory and voluntary offerings), when it’s made, how it’s made, which require incense and libations, what is to be sprinkled, waved or burned, what may be eaten and by whom, and what must be burned up entirely. That’s Leviticus.

The essence of Leviticus is sacrifices, but what is the essence of sacrifices? It’s about the stuff we give to God and what that means to us and does for us. The Hebrew word korban (whose root – kuf-resh-bet means “near” or “draw close”) suggests that the essence of a korban is an act that draws us close to God. While Torah poetically describes God smelling the smoke of the offerings – rei-ach ni-choach / “a pleasing odor” – we know that God does not need our offerings. Rather, the act of offering them binds us to God; it intensifies our relationship with God. Think about what it means to you to give something to someone else. What does it do to your relationship with that person? For our ancestors, God was beyond this world, the Creator and Owner of the universe. Offerings bound the individual and the community to its Creator, just as gifts we give one another draw us closer.

After the destruction of the Temple, our Sages were faced with a tremendous challenge: how do we maintain our relationship with God now that the sacrificial cult is gone? Midrash Avot de-Rabbi Natan (4:5) provides a remarkable, transformative, and brilliant response:
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said, "Woe to us! The place where the sins of the people Israel were atoned lies in ruins!" Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him: “Do not be grieved, my son. We have another means of atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving kindness, as it is written, For I desire loving kindness, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).”
With this, the Rabbis redirect us to see that God is not only “out there” and beyond us, but also among us and indeed, within each of us. The kindness we bestow on others – not in a ritual manner, but as a way of living in the world day in and day out is how we connect with God. It’s not about stuff anymore. It’s about loving kindness. Maybe God never really cared about stuff and it’s just that we had to grow beyond our obsession with possessions to realize that what truly matters is the tzelem Elohim (the image of God) standing before us. We still have a way to go.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Journey of Control and Powerlessness / Parshat Pikudei

It’s been a long, cold winter in this part of the country, but perhaps far worse where you live. Everyone I know is hankering for a vacation in a balmy clime because spring is not yet around the corner. The locker room conversation at the gym this morning was a continuous kvetch about the cold. Several people said, “What I wouldn’t give to get out of here for a few days.” A flight out, a car trip south, a journey to anywhere snow doesn’t fall.

The Israelite are embarking on a journey in a place snow never falls. The Sinai Wilderness is Eden compared with Egypt, but for people who have been slaves all their lives, it is frightening place of unknowns.

God has revealed the Torah. The Mishkan has been designed, built, and consecrated. The priests have been anointed and are prepared to offer a complex array of sacrifices, each in its own way at its own time. The cloud of God’s Glory rests atop the Mishkan, a sign that God’s Presence dwells among Israel. The very last verse of Parshat Pikudei, the very last portion in Exodus, reads:
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout ma’aseihem (“their journeys”). (Exodus 40:38)
At the Reed Sea and again at Sinai, God erupted into the lives of the Israelites, dramatic, stunning, astounding. Now God will be a constant in their lives – a cloud hovering above the Tabernacle by day, fire by night, always visible, always present. While we might expect and wish this to assure them smooth travels, we know that their four decades in the Wilderness will be anything but smooth sailing. Life, however promising, is fraught with trials and tribulations. What is true for Israelites is true for each of us. That is the nature of every life journey.

Midrash Tanhuma (Pikudei #3) speaks of the journey of the individual, from before conception to the end of life. This long midrash describes how God plucks a designated soul from the Garden of Eden and implants it in a designated drop of semen and readies it to create life. The soul is then taken on a whirlwind tour of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) to view the fate of the righteous, to Gehenna to see the fate of the wicked, and then – even more alarmingly – to see its own life laid out before it, including where it will die and be buried. Having toured the panorama of the universe and its own life, the soul is bolted into its mother’s womb for nine months. When its time to be born arrives, the soul balks and objects. So the angel assigned to escort it into the world gives it a klopf and knocks all memory of what it has seen out of its head. The newborn emerges into the light and air of the world without any memory of what will be. It lives its life in ignorance of its future – as we all do. When its time to die arrives, the angel reappears and asks, “Do you recognize me?” and the person who did not wish to be born into the world, weeps at having to leave it.

The midrash is quite long, so I would like to share with you three short pieces for your consideration because they contain elements that are disconcerting or troubling, but upon examination reveal wisdom for us.

1. First, the opening words of the midrash:
Before the formation of the embryo in its mother’s womb, the Holy One decrees what it is to be in the end – male or female, weak or strong, poor or rich, short or tall, ungainly or handsome, scrawny or fat, humble or insolent. God also decrees what is to happen to it. But not whether it is to be righteous or wicked, a matter God places solely in the person’s power.
We might be inclined to reduce this passage to a 4th century acknowledgement of nature and nurture: God plays the role of nature, supplying sex and genetic traits for potential strength, size, looks, and personality. The individual, however, retains sole responsibility for his or her moral decisions. But there are two categories that should give us pause: the midrash claims that wealth is God’s decision, and that the events of a person’s life are in God’s hands. We would be inclined to think that poverty and wealth, as well as the events that constitute one’s life journey, result from a confluence of factors: one’s family of origin, where one grows up, the decisions one makes, the people one comes into contact with, and so on. How many of us would claim that God is in control of all this? Would this not contradict the notion of free will we so cherish, and on which our lives and societies are built? How literally should we take what Tanhuma says?

Allow me to suggest that the Rabbis who penned Tanhuma are saying this: So much happens to a person in life. We can hardly wrap our brains around the complexity of our lives and the many factors and influences that impinge upon the course and quality of our lives. The one thing that is certain is that our moral decisions are solely ours – we are free to choose at every instant. Our choices are never infinite – the world doesn’t work that way – but we do have choices, and God stands with us at every choice urging us to make the best choice possible.

2. Here’s the second passage:
[After the angel plucks a soul from the Garden of Eden and brings it to God] the Holy One says to the soul, “Enter the drop that is in such-and-such an angel’s hand.” The soul opens its mouth and says, “Master of the universe, the world in which I have been dwelling since the day You created me is enough for me. Why do You wish to have me, who am holy and pure, hewn from the mass of Your glory, enter this fetid drop?” The Holy One replies, “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled. Indeed, when I formed you, I formed you only for this drop.”
If Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) is paradise – the place of our origin and the place we long to return, the idyllic place of peace and perfection – why does God say, “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled”? The truth is that every life entails pain and suffering. No one’s life is unalloyed joy and happiness, beginning to end. Is God lying? Or is God deceiving the soul to subdue it?

I think the answer is in the words “for you”: “The world I will have you enter will be more beautiful for you than the one in which you have dwelled.” In theory, Gan Eden is an unsurpassable utopia. But imagine yourself in Gan Eden. What would you do? How long could you be there before you were tearing your hair out looking for something meaningful to do? Who would find existence in utopia purposeful? None of us seeks out pain and suffering, but all of us find meaning in meeting challenges and overcoming struggles, in the soul-growth that results from meeting life head-on.

3. The third piece is the passage that closes out the midrash:
The man [on the verge of death] pleads with the angel, “You have already taken me out of two worlds and made me enter this world.” The angel says, “Have I not told you that you were formed against your will, were born against your will, were alive against your will, and against your will are destined to give an account and reckoning before the Holy One blessed be God?”
First, a few words of explanation: The “two worlds” from which the angel plucked the soul are the Garden of Eden where it originally resided, and the womb where it abided for nine months of gestation.

When the angel says, “…you were formed against your will…” the midrash echoes the teaching of R. Elazar ha-Kapor in Pirke Avot 4:29:
…against your will you were formed, against your will were born; against your will you lived, against your will you will die; and against your will you are destined to give an account and reckoning before the Ruler of rulers, the Holy One blessed be God.
That’s a cheery thought, isn’t it? On one hand it sounds like R. Elazar ha-Kapor is saying we are entirely powerless: we are born, we live, we die, and then we stand in judgment before God. But perhaps R. Elazar, along with the Rabbis who crafted the midrash in Tanhuma, are acknowledging in a very in-your-face manner the truth we sometimes avoid. That is, there is much over which we have no control, and that “much” includes some big-ticket items such as our very existence and the fact of our mortality. When we come to grips with that and fully accept it – no longer expending precious energy railing against it – we can focus on what we can control and see these pockets of control as divine blessings pregnant with sacred possibilities. What we can do under our own control points us in the direction of our sacred mission in this world.

We cannot choose the hand dealt us, but it is ours to decide how to play it. Will we use our talents, skills, and energy in ways we will be proud to report to God -- and claim for ourselves – when all is said and done? Will our efforts be directed toward helping others or only promoting our own selves? Will our lives bless the world and those who inhabit it with us?

We cannot control the facts of our existence and mortality, nor our genetics, families of origin, nation of origin, and so much more, yet we can transcend many of the givens by sanctifying our lives through out choices and thereby blessing the world and the people in our lives.

With parshat Pikudei, we close out Sefer Shemot (Exodus) and say, chazak chazak v’nitchazeik – may we go from strength to strength, strengthened by Torah and strengthening one another.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman