Nicholas Miller's Bar Mitzvah

Facebook_NicolasMillerHi, or שלום (Sholom)!

My name is Nicholas (Nick) Miller and I’m a 7th grader at San Francisco Friends School. I am a second generation San Franciscan and a third generation member of Beth Sholom. My favorite things are playing sports or video games, spending time outdoors or with family and friends, and making art when I have an inspiration.

On April 29, I will be called to the Torah, a huge milestone in my life. As I have spent lots of time preparing for my big day, I have come to be aware of my place in my Jewish community.

In this week’s combined parsha, Tazria-Metzora, we learn how to deal with tzara’at (skin distortion). At the time, Aaron was the priest and the one making the decision about whether someone was pure (tahor) or impure (tameh). Aaron could tell if someone was impure if the person had any skin distortion. These people were identified, in public, as being impure because they didn’t fit in with the expected norm and then were forced out of the camp. These people would then have to follow very strict rules to become pure again.

I want to thank my mom and my dad for pushing me to get my work done and helping me out when I was challenged. I want to thank my family and friends, especially my sister, for supporting me. I want to thank Rabbi Glazer for helping me choose my Hebrew name as well as teaching me how to relate to the Torah. Thank you to Noa Bar for her dedication, hard work, and teaching me how to read Torah. Lastly, I want to thank Henry Hollander, who has selflessly volunteered innumerable hours to make sure that this day happened.

Tazria / Metzora – Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Facebook_CoverDesign_Tazria-MetzoraDebate still abounds as to how best translate the key terms tumah and taharah — signatures of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? I continue to return to the inspired translation of theologian Rachel Adler, who teaches that tumah and taharah are best rendered as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn."

In Parashat Metzora, we encounter the moment where Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. Some of our rabbinic interpretation suggests that the signs of the metzora really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement, a person who has not yet learned "how to die and be reborn."

But the spiritual malaise of tzara’at is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In These Are The Words, Rabbi Arthur Green writes that the ritual defilements that Leviticus is preoccupied with all stem from "improper contact with the portals of birth and death, the limits of life as we know it." This week's illustration is meant to call to mind a sensuous plume of smoke – the sacrificial offering – but was created using the documented action of subatomic particles in a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) bubble chamber – itself a beautiful artifact of our species' ongoing attempts to learn more about the origins and limits of life. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Miles Kessler's Bar Mitzvah

MilesKesslerMy name is Miles Kessler, and I am a 7th grader at Roosevelt Middle School. I enjoy playing board games like Monopoly along with strategic games like chess and Risk. I also enjoy playing World War II video games, engineering, model railroading, and playing jazz on my tenor saxophone.

I am very excited about my bar mitzvah this coming Shabbat, but, to tell you the truth, I'm also pretty terrified! The Torah portion will be Parashat Chukat. The manuscript outlines the laws of purity, that is, how one becomes impure, and instructions on how to purify those who are impure. It then chronicles Moses' mistake (when he struck, rather than spoke, to a rock to get water for the parched Israelites), and the history of what happened next.

I cannot wait to share this day with my friends, Greg and Colin, family, and all the members of the minyan, and I hope you find it enlightening.

I would like to thank my mom and dad for pushing me on when I got stuck and teaching me the value of commitment; my tutor, Stuart, for teaching me how to do get the job done along with the value of learning; Rabbi Glazer, for giving me the gift of Torah study and instructing me on the value of spirituality; the weekday minyan, for showing me how to read the Torah and teaching me the value of tolerance; and all the previous b'nai mitzvahs during the last school year, for exposing me to this process and teaching me the value of passing on knowledge as a side effect of your own learning process.

Metzora -- Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

CoverDesign_MetzoraFrench author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) once remarked:

"Society is a republic. When an individual tries to lift themselves above others, they are dragged down by the mass, either by ridicule or slander."

Slander is at once a spiritual and physical disease. In Numbers 12, Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. But slander appears in Parshat Metzora, too, albeit less plainly. The signs of the metzora (commonly mistranslated as "leper" in last week’s parsha) really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement. The recipe for return (or becoming "clean" again) may strike the modern reader as magical. A detailed ceremony is described whereby the priest brings together two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread, and a bundle of hyssop as an offering.

But this spiritual malaise is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease of tzara’at is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the sacrifice of "two, live clean birds" described in the opening passage of Parashat Metzora. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria -- Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

CoverDesign_TazriaThe renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) once observed:

"Abstract painting seeks to be a pure pictorial language, and thus attempts to escape the essential impurity of all languages: the recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

Nowhere is this "essential impurity of all languages" more evident than when reading about the laws of tumah and taharah — a signature of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Debate still abounds as to how exactly to be best translate these key terms — Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? There remains a real need in communal life to continue to have "recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone." Consider the passionately-committed but critical Orthodox, feminist Jew, Rachel Adler, and her translation of tumah and taharah as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn” and how this resonates with Octavio Paz’s poetic categories.

In grappling with the biblical text and its layers of rabbinic interpretation, a turn to poetics invites us once again to embrace halakhah as we continue to weave the rich tapestry of ritual into our daily lives through "forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is intended to be unsettling, and references the base manner in which our ancestors evaluated an individual's purity (or impurity). Many of the laws and rituals in Leviticus strike contemporary readers as anachronistic or even offensive. When reading Tanakh, we Jews are called upon to take our ancestral name seriously (Yisrael, literally "he who contends or strives with G-d"). We must wrestle with these texts not only because a growing number of our brethren embrace a more literal understanding of these decrees, but because this is our book, the "word" that binds Jews of all stripes, streams, and colors in our special tribal/communal relationship (klal Yisrael) -- even those of us who read our ancestors' purity tests as ethnic or ethnoreligious anthropology do not get a pass. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.