Leviticus: Tazria/Metzora — “The Illusion of Influence (5772)

30/04/2012 at 11:02 2 comments

“Illusion of Influence”


Parashat Tazria/Metzora

Neil F. Blumofe

28 April 2012


As many of us look to gain meaning from Jewish rituals and observances, perhaps there is no time more exciting or more innovative than the present.  Although we are familiar with the well-known Festivals of the Jewish year – the High Holydays, Passover, and Hanukah – this cluster of days that has just occurred gives us the opportunity to continue to write our sacred texts and to shape our practices in unforeseen and in intensely creative ways.


How to live Jewishly is not a closed book – it is not merely about inheriting what we do from generations past.  The three observances that come one after the other – Yom haShoah, Yom haZikaron, and Yom haAtzmaut – Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen, and then, Israel Independence Day, respectively, have been established only within the last 65 years and continue to provide opportunity for creativity, understanding, and definition as Judaism continues to evolve and develop.  These three days have been called post-rabbinic Holy Days — part of a present-day Judaism that, especially after the Holocaust, informs our worldview as much, if not more so than halacha (interpretation of the Torah) or even faithful observance of mitzvoth (living a commanded life).


Current thinkers proclaim that Israel is critical to the future of Jews throughout the world and identification and involvement with Israel is the most important form of Jewish activism in the world today.  And yet, in many communities, including Austin, to discuss Israel brings a variety of viewpoints and also elevated tensions and can quickly cause hurt feelings and simmering resentments between previously good friends – unresolved, these bad feelings can creep like the mysterious stain of tsara’at, or unexplained discolorations, found in this week’s Torah portions.


We exist in a time when the mission of a national advocacy group may mean more to a person than a person’s neighbors – and taking a tear-stained page out of current political rhetoric, not only opinions, but people are insulted and cheapened at almost every opportunity.  Absolute and exclusive pronouncements are made.  We sign petitions and paid advertisements, giving ourselves an illusion of influence and control, as we distance ourselves from face-to-face relationships and squander the joys of encountering everyday life together.


In our culture of overheated media and snarky news outlets, there is no room for nuance and fine distinction – in our winner take all and scorched earth way of life, our challenger must not only be defeated – but too, destroyed, humiliated, and even shunned.  Engaging in the general marketplace of ideas about Israel brings not reward and satisfaction, but rather tension and strain.  Competing narratives about Israel’s birth and present place of purpose threaten to suffocate all concerned in a torrent of emotions – so one finds relief only in the company of unlikely allies and a self-selected group of like-minded friends.


Yet, like in our own lives, we realize that any truth exists in many contexts.  Rather than trying to shut down, disenfranchise, or ignore those who don’t agree with us, perhaps we should make it a priority to gather and tell each other our stories – to honor the confusion and the dissonance that comes when talking about the affairs of our heart.  Perhaps to start, we could make a simple lunch date with a group of friends and then go around the table without another’s judgment or response, and tell each other what we love about Israel – what gets us excited and fills us with awe, or marvel, or pride – and then, as everyone has reflected, do the same thing in speaking about the one thing that vexes us when thinking about Israel – that fills us with concern, or disappointment, or gloom.  Can we not hold these ideas together?  Must we be polarized and choose only one, exclusive answer – attaching ourselves to an either “with us or against us” attitude?


Let us not only dress these days of honoring sacrifice and celebration in the garb of established ritual and practice – let us not think that we have participated in Yom haAtzmaut by reading a special prayer or poem, or because we have waved a flag, or eaten falafel and engaged in the music and land of Israel for a day.  Let us stop to consider beyond the impassioned haranguing that swirls all around us, what place Israel has in our lives in ways that bring us feelings of both joy and pain.  It is the acknowledgment and acceptance of the veracity of the partial truth that will move us forward from out of our stuck places – eilu v’eilu divrei Hayim Elokim — the words of the Living God are the composite of each incomplete truth.  To make the truth complete, to make the truth whole, depends on allowing each to stand.


This past Wednesday night as we were preparing to experience Yom haAtzmaut,, I was at the southern edge of Manhattan, standing on a beautiful balcony on the upper floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, looking at the Statue of Liberty.  I was attending a dinner with funders for a program that both Rabbi Rachel Kobrin and I have been involved in – a think tank called Rabbi without Borders, sponsored by the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, led by Rabbis Irwin Kula, Brad Hirschfield, and Rebecca Sirbu.  Rabbis without Borders recognizes that there are schisms and real impediments that inhibit conversation and wholehearted involvement within Judaism – and rather than ignore or devalue the impact that rabbis have in both thinking through this and in the responsibility for producing this unease in the first place, rabbis with diverse opinions and practices gather together four times in a year to learn from each other and to find ways to heal our world past inertia, shallow escape, and antipathy.


I was thinking about what the Statue of Liberty represented to immigrants from previous generations as they entered that harbor – how the hopes of a new country truly outweighed the country’s substantial challenges and how appropriate it was to be attending that Rabbis without Borders dinner in that place on Yom haAtzmaut.  And later, as I listened to very successful people share their own ideas about the positives and the negatives in their relationship with Israel, we were linked together by a common experience and in the openness of our sharing.  We did not try to fix each other and, I thought about how valuable this kind of sharing would be within our schools, academic centers, and places of worship.


So, as we celebrate these 64 years of Israel’s miraculous existence – let us not try to insert ourselves into the intractable knot of issues for ultimate justice that can only divide us – rather, let us begin by sharing our practical hopes and dreams and too, our dearest contemporary wishes for improvement for the Jewish state.  Let us make our relationship with Israel a real one, based on reality – and as we acknowledge this reality, we will become both more secure, able to listen more fully, and thus, happier.


Shabbat Shalom.

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Shemot: 5772 — Heavyweight Division Naso (5772) — The Ins and Outs of Pluralism — Walking on the Faith Staircase

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lea Isgur  |  03/05/2012 at 06:36

    Very thoughtful and I am hopeful that we can indeed take these words to heart and come to better and more positive discourse on Israel. Thanks for sharing.

  • 2. Pamela Villars  |  03/05/2012 at 08:57

    I agree too, and appreciate you advocating for a large, respectful, and thoughtful tent. We all want to the same thing for Israel (peace, health, strength) and we will only accomplish it by working together.


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