D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
I thank you for my life, body and soul
Help me realize I am beautiful and whole
I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too
I will live each day as a gift I give to you
Written by Dan Nichols, this song Asher Yatzar (He Who Has Fashioned), is a commentary on a daily prayer of the same name:
Blessed are You our God, Sovereign of the universe, who fashioned people with wisdom, and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory, that if but one of them were to be ruptured, or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Barukh Ata Adonai rofeh khol basar u’mafli la’asot -- Blessed are You God, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
Expressing thanks for the continued functioning of our bodies that allows us to awaken on any particular day, this prayer Asher Yatzar acknowledges gratefulness to God for the gift of life. The song Asher Yatzar also acknowledges God for our lives, our bodies, our souls. But it doesn’t stop there-- I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too. In other words, my body may ache, I may need to lose a few pounds, I may have a blemish somewhere, but I’m perfect the way I am.
There’s a saying in the 12 Step/recovery community; progress not perfection. Not only aren’t we perfect but perfection just isn’t the goal. Perfection is elusive but it doesn’t matter. I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too. Perfection includes being partly broken.
In their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham write: Spirituality’s first step involves facing [one’s] self squarely, seeing one’s self as one is: mixed up, paradoxical, incomplete, and imperfect. Flawed-ness is the first fact about human beings
In this week’s Torah portion Emor, we find a somewhat different approach to perfection —at least when it comes to the priesthood. Also called Torat Kohanim, the priest’s manual, Emor describes the priestly lifestyle, one which through their various ritual obligations and restrictive way of life, sets priests apart from the rest of the Israelites. But even among the priests not everyone is created equal when it comes to those ritual obligations.
No man of your offspring throughout the ages who had a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God……no man who is blind or lame, or has a limb too short or too long. No man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, or who is hunchback or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye….. shall be qualified to offer God’s gift…….he shall not enter or come behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. (Lev. 21:16-21)
Wow! I find these verses to be a bit troubling. It’s troubling enough that one has to be born into the priesthood in order to be a priest but to then be rejected because of characteristics over which one has no control is even more troubling. And to add insult to injury, priests are required to adhere to strict rules of conduct. For instance, they cannot marry a divorcee, shave any part of their heads, cut the side-growth of their beard, or make gashes in their flesh.
Now, it’s true that even in our day there are many professions with strict rules of entry – jockeys for example can’t weigh more than 126 lbs. in order to compete in the Kentucky Derby. To be a pilot in the Air Force ROTC you have to have a standing height of 64 to 77 inches and a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. But these are really requirements they are not defects.
In our society we frown on discriminating against those with certain blemishes or defects. In fact, we have laws that protect this type of discrimination and yet the desire and the pressure we place on achieving perfection while not established as law, is no less prevalent than it was in the days of the Kohanim. Today we hear for instance about the pressure to be thin, the pressure to have a perfect nose, the pressure to be wrinkle-free.
The rabbis like to explain away this section of the Torah by reminding us that a Kohen not only represented the people to God but God to the people. In presenting God to the people it was essential that the priest be “perfect” both spiritually and physically. But this kind of perfection just doesn’t resonate so well to our modern ears. Our modern ears hear instead how God doesn’t demand perfection from us-- how God instead demands we be the best we can be- no more no less. Truthfully, being our best is hard enough. Being our best is a daily struggle.
Progress not perfection.
Former Commissioner of Baseball Francis T. Vincent, Jr. once said: Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.
Progress not perfection. In Leonard Cohen’s classic song Anthem, he clearly references this week’s Torah portion and priestly perfection in presenting an offering to God, by reminding us how our imperfections help us to become the best we can be:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking
When it comes to addictions, it isn’t enough to turn away from drinking and drugs. Without working on the underlying issues that triggered this behavior, there is a good chance a person in recovery will relapse. According to choice theory developed in 1996 by psychologist William Glasser, human beings have direct control over the acting and thinking components of their behavior. For example, a person in recovery can choose to behave according to how they are feeling in the moment or they can choose to behave counter to what their mood might impel them to do. They can choose to do what they want to do or they can choose to do what they need to do.
The second of this week’s double Torah portion Tazria/Metzora, introduces the notion of a ritual for purifying and reintegrating a metzora, someone recovering from tzara'at, from a skin disease. Before conducting the ritual, the priest would visit the metzora in order to verify whether he or she had recovered. A ritual sacrifice was then performed after which the individual was allowed to re-enter the camp.
The Talmud lists seven reasons why someone might be afflicted with tzara’at, one of which is gossip. This understanding also comes from the Book of Numbers, when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after she and her brother Aaron gossip about Moses’ wife Tzipporah. A Midrash even connects the word metzora with the phrase motzi shem ra, someone guilty of slander or libel.
According to the Ma’ayan Ha-Hokhmah, Rabbi Abraham Kalmanakes, when the evil urge tempts you to sin, God’s expectation is for you to basically apply choice theory and behave in a way counter to what your mood might impel you to do. God expects you to perform the mitzvah that is the opposite of the sin. If for instance gossip is what caused one to become a metzora it isn’t enough to just stop gossiping. It isn’t enough to merely avoid gossiping. It is necessary to take a positive action and show for example, love to the person about whom one gossiped.
This past year we have all gotten very creative in how we approach each passing day. Whether we distract ourselves with TV, movies, jigsaw puzzles, house cleaning, exercise, or zoom events, each of us in our own unique way, has adjusted, adapted, or simply put up with this new way of living. Like the recovering alcoholic who chooses to do what they need to do and not what they want to do; or the metzora who stops gossiping and shows love to the person they harmed, we have also learned not to think our way into a new kind of living, but instead, live our way into a new kind of thinking.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
It’s easy to quibble with the above definition of insanity. As a legal term, insanity has to do with a defendant’s ability to determine right from wrong when a crime is committed. In the context of addiction however, insanity usually refers to the pattern of repeating behaviors that never end well. Put another way, insanity implies losing the ability to think and act in a rational manner.
One of the more well-known rituals we perform during the Seder is the recitation of the ten plagues. With the mention of each plague, we spill a drop of wine as a way to acknowledge the Egyptians who suffered because of our liberation. Yes, the Egyptians were cruel to the Israelites and deserved punishment. But despite their cruelty, it’s hard to be happy when others are punished on our account. As we read in Proverbs,
בִּנְפֹ֣ל א֭וֹיִבְךָ אַל־תִּשְׂמָ֑ח וּ֝בִכָּשְׁל֗וֹ אַל־יָגֵ֥ל לִבֶּֽךָ
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls (Proverbs 24:17)
In the story of the Exodus, Moses pleads over and over again with Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery and warns him of the consequences that will transpire if he refuses to let them go. Pharaoh as well after witnessing the destructive impact the plagues have on the Egyptians, pleads over and over again with Moses to have God bring each plague to an end. The difference between how Moses and Pharaoh behave is that Pharaoh then promises to let the Israelites go only to later renege on that promise.
As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (‘z”l) writes: The life history of the addictive person is virtually identical to the saga of the ten plagues. The person’s habit results in some type of disastrous consequence, and he swears that he will never resume this behavior. Before too long however, he does resume his destructive behavior, totally oblivious to the experiences of the past, or cleverly deluding himself as to why this time, things will be different.
While 10 repetitions of this behavior might seem like a lot, it could as Rabbi Twerski writes, occur more than 100 times-- only stopping in the face of a catastrophe. The 10th plague, the killing of the Egyptian first-born, is the catastrophe that stops Pharaoh in his tracks. When he realizes אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30), he releases the Israelites. But then, in the ultimate example of bad behavior not ending well, Pharaoh again changes his mind and he and his army pursue the Israelites right into the Sea of Reeds where they drown.
It is not only those suffering from the disease of addiction who can succumb to this kind of irrational behavior. All of us are capable of being stubborn in the face of logic or blind to the truth of our behavior. During this zman cheiruteinu, this season of our freedom, let us make an effort to rise above the behaviors that keep us in prisons of our own making. Let us declare our freedom from the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Chag Kasher Sameach – Happy Passover!!
Spirituality is the ability to get our minds off ourselves
At its core the 12-Step program is a spiritual one. As a process of surrendering one’s ego to a higher power or the God of our understanding, working the steps engenders a sense of acceptance and detachment. As Carl Jung wrote, recovery from alcoholism requires a spiritual cure equal to the power of alcohol. The Big Book states that entering the world of the spirit means leaving the world of self-centeredness and a focus on materialistic things. It means embracing unconditional love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control and humility. Becoming spiritual is not a goal but rather something we need to work on over the course of our lives.
In this week’s double portion Vayakhel/Pikudei, we come to the end of the Book of Exodus. These two portions are the last in a series of five interconnected portions having to do with the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Towards that end the Israelites not only donate their possessions but devote their own time and skills to this communal project.
Let’s face it up until now the Israelites have been a bit self-absorbed – unable to see beyond themselves. Within three days of crossing the Sea of Reeds they were complaining about the lack of and the quality of their food and water. When Moses was with God and away from them they grumbled about how long he was gone. That grumbling led to the incident of the Golden Calf.
In helping to build the Mishkan the Israelites were being asked to set aside their complaints; to cease their grumbling. They were asked to participate in something beyond themselves; something with a greater purpose. They were asked to create a spiritual center in the middle of the desert that would allow God to dwell among them. It would be a place of spiritual activity where God could communicate with Moses; where the Israelites could bring sacrifices to atone for their sins; where the people could express their gratitude. Even more, it was a place where the Israelites could tap into their spirituality and find the ability to get their minds off themselves.
Change is a process not an event
Change is hard. It’s hard because we are creatures of habit. It’s hard because sometimes the habit we need to change is one we enjoy. It’s hard because learning something new takes time and we are often impatient. But as hard as it might be, change can also afford us the opportunity to improve our lives. So, while making changes is a difficult process it is also an inevitable and natural part of life.
In the Torah these past few weeks we have observed the Israelites going through a lot of changes. Once they were slaves, now they are a free people. Once they were merely a free people, now they are a nation. Once they were only a nation, now laws have been put into place for the creation of a just nation.
These changes did not happen all at once and there were of course moments of unhappiness and even regret for taking these steps forward. But, one of the benefits of these changes is that the Israelites were brought closer to God. In last week’s portion that closeness culminated in the building of the Mishkan, a portable tabernacle in which God could dwell with the Israelites as they wandered through the desert.
In this week’s portion Tetzaveh, the Israelites’ relationship with God is again strengthened. The details for the construction of the Mishkan shift to a description of priestly vestments. This is followed by an explanation of the priests’ ordination ceremony in which each of the kohanim undergoes a massive transformation – from ordinary Israelite to priest in God’s service.
When making a change in our life we can help ourselves by taking it “one day at a time” and treating our transformation as an ongoing process. Even though the particulars of our desired changes may look different from that of the Israelites, the fundamental goals are the same – to live meaningful and just lives and to strengthen and deepen our relationship with God. Either way it’s clear that change is a process not an event.