Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat

lia rosen

Jews celebrate the New Year in the fall, still, Nissan is considered the first month of the year because it is the first month in which we were a free people. In midrash and legend, the first Rosh Hodesh was marked by Moses as the preparations for the Exodus began in earnest. If you didn’t begin spring cleaning on the day after Purim (some people really do this!), this week is a good time to begin to rid the house of hametz/bread and any of the things you wish to discard.

Nissan is also the month, according to legend, in which Moses’ sister Miriam, died. Chabad.org records this piece of “Jewish History” as “Miriam’s Passing (1274 BCE) Miriam, the sister of Moses, passed away at the age of 126 on the 10th of Nissan of the year 2487 from creation (1274 BCE) — 39 years after the Exodus and exactly one year before the Children of Israel entered the Holy Land.” I love the exactness of this (although the date of Nissan 10 is disputed).

This week’s parsha, Tazria, describes how to diagnose and treat a skin disease, tzaraat, which later afflicts Miriam. This connection between Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat is rich material for poetry and drash. Here are a few; we’ll share more on Saturday morning, hope you can make it.

Snow/Scorpions & Spiders

by Girls in Trouble

Well my mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother
But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
So when he said You’re banished,
Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say
The scorpions and the spiders
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade
Together in silence they watched
As the sun crossed the sky
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone
at the top of the mountain
Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
[Suggested by Rabbi Alana]
Poem in Praise of Menstruation

by Lucille Clifton

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon          if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta          if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain          if there is
a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel          if there is in
the universe such a river          if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
[suggested by Margo Schlanger]

Sent Out of the Camp

A d’var Torah for Parashat Tazria by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

This week’s parashah deals with a somewhat puzzling disease, called tzara’at, often translated as “leprosy.” As the Torah describes it, it’s an affliction that could appear on human skin, on clothes, or even infect houses.

It’s not clear if the affliction is truly physical, as Leviticus seems to indicate, or if it’s a physical manifestation of spiritual distress, as a number of commentators suggest. However, either way, the solution to the problem is isolation. The afflicted party is shut up for a week or more, forced to live outside the camp, away from the rest of his or her community.

On the one hand, this quarantine is traditionally understood not as a punishment, but rather a time to recover and protect others from infection. One could also imagine it as something of a retreat—a time for someone who is physically or spiritually unwell to recuperate and regain strength.

On the other, well, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like to be told that you must be cast away from loving, human connection as a result of contracting an ailment or stumbling interpersonally. What kind of impact did being sent away from the camp have on the afflicted?

Between 80,000-100,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day, many for rather minor infractions. Despite the fact that more than 15 hours in solitary confinement may begin to have an adverse impact on a prisoner’s mental health, the average sentence in solitary can run, depending on the state, anywhere from 23 months to 7.5 years, and longer for those on death row. Many argue that, in light of the significant mental harm that it causes, solitary confinement should be classified as a form of torture.

Joe Giarratano, a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison, reflects:

Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally; solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my… stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.

Many traditional commentators attempt to cast the metzora, the one with this strange Biblical leprosy, as responsible for their own suffering—for example, citing a tendency towards malicious gossip as the reason the person needed to be exiled. But there’s another textual tradition that regards them with a softer eye.

For, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) tells us, no less than the Messiah will be found sitting among the lepers, and will be known as “the leper scholar.” That is to say, the one who will bring healing and redemption to the world aligns her- or himself with those who have been forced into isolation. And the Sifra, the ancient midrash on Leviticus, tells us that, even in the lepers’ isolation, “the Divine Presence still abides among them.”

It’s on God to be with those who suffer. It’s on us to prevent unnecessary suffering, insofar as we are able. When we push for just and humane reforms to our contemporary prison system, we engage in the work of the Messiah.

Yom Kippur Afternoon Programming

medium_laronwilliamswebAs always, AARC will have afternoon programming on Yom Kippur, in between the Morning and Torah service (10am-2pm) and our evening non traditional Yizkor service (5:30-6:45pm). The afternoon programming is 2-5pm; come to one part or all, as you choose. At 2, there will be an hour guided meditation–or take a break, perhaps for a walk through the beautiful grounds of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation building. From 3-3:50pm, we will host a workshop on institutional racism and insider/outsider status by Ann Arbor activist La’Ron Williams, and at 4-4:50pm Rabbi Michael Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah.

This year we are trying something new: having a respected and honored guest lead a Yom Kippur afternoon workshop that will draw us to use our open and vulnerable condition to make meaningful change. La’Ron Williams conducts workshops – with schools, business organizations, and non-profits – on the fundamentals of creating inclusive communities across a number of lines of diversity. His workshops are always informative, entertaining, and filled with opportunities for personal growth and organizational development. La’Ron is also a nationally acclaimed, award winning storyteller who, for more than twenty-five years, has toured extensively presenting highly participatory, music-spiced programs composed of a dynamic blend of original and traditional tales. He is known for his pronounced commitment to justice and peacemaking – a commitment made concrete through his involvement with the Racial and Economic Justice Task Force of the Ann Arbor based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and via his work with Washtenaw Faces Race, an all-volunteer, inter-racial, interdisciplinary group that consciously and consistently works to dismantle racial hierarchy and promote racial equity in local institutions within Washtenaw County.

La’Ron describes the Yom Kippur afternoon workshop:

In the main, America’s understanding of racism remains stuck in the 1960s. Most of us only recognize it when it shows up as it did in the June shooting at the AME Church in Charleston – in overt incidents of violence, or as easily identifiable, interpersonal acts of discrimination backed by the ill will of a few individuals.

Because we think of it that way, the remedies we envision for it are part-time, incidental, and situationally applied to those we identify as its victims. In truth, 21st century racism cannot be remedied in our spare time. It lies deeply imbedded in all of our institutions; operating constantly, continuously, and “invisibly” — to perpetuate, in hundreds of ways that remain largely unmentioned, unidentified, and unexamined, a hierarchy of White advantage.

This presentation is designed to help its participants begin to recognize and understand the pervasiveness and effects of this contemporary “stealth” racism. Using a blend of storytelling, lecture and dialogue, we will focus on concept building, increasing our awareness of our personal racial identity development within an already racialized milieu, and identifying the major illusions that act to thwart our efforts to achieve inclusion.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThen at 4 o’clock, Rabbi Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah, traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon. What a one-two! As commentator Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on Biblical Unconscious,  “The enigmas that enrage and sadden Jonah are not riddles to be solved. They remain; God invites Jonah to bear them, even to deepen them, and to allow new perceptions to emerge unbidden. In a word, to stand and pray.” And as Maya Bernstein comments on this: “And so we, Jonah-like, enter the synagogue as he entered the fish, and as we stand in the dark, unseeing, we call out to our Creator. We do not answer these riddles; rather, we immerse ourselves in them and let them take us over.”

Teach-Ins: 50 Years Ago and Today

teach in 50Fifty years ago this week, AARC member Alan Haber helped to organize the first anti-Vietnam War “teach-in” on the campus of the University of Michigan. In February and March 1965, the United States had begun sustained bombing of North Vietnam (and, secretly, Laos and Cambodia), and the first ground combat troops landed. As a co-founder and the first president (1960) of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Alan had been organizing against the war for years. According to recent articles recalling the events, a few UM professors wanted to call a one day strike, but amid backlash decided to use their positions and the university’s resources differently. The first 12-hour teach-in (8pm-8am March 24-25, 1965) in campus spaces and involving two hundred professors and thousands of students, was a significant escalation of the anti-war protest movement. This coming weekend, March 27-28, the UM is hosting a “Teach-In +50: End the War Against the Planet.”

In a prelude to the weekend’s events, Alan and many other longtime peace activists are spending the week assessing lessons from the past and applying them to violent conflicts that still plague our world. You can still catch two panels on Thursday, March 26: On today’s wars in the Middle East, 3:00-5:30pm, Room B780 School of Social Work lower level; and Winning the Peace: What have We Learned, 7-9pm in the International Institute’s Meeting Room.

The full program for the week-end Teach-In is here

Friendly folks, snacks and more at Sunday Morning Community Learning

Playing the part of roving blogger, I dropped in on the AARC Community Learning group at the JCC on Sunday morning, Jan. 18, 2015.

Community Learning at the JCC on Sunday, Jan. 18. 2015

Community Learning at the JCC on Sunday, January 18. 2015

What I found was a lovely, welcoming group (they had even brought three different kinds of delicious snacks) and a lively, thoughtful, enjoyable discussion. The topic of the day was mitzvot (commandments), a topic chosen to parallel the Beit Sefer students in their learning about mitzvot. Led by Rabbi Michal, the group explored a range of interesting angles, from the abstract to the concrete. These included the concept of holiness as a Jewish thing and a universal thing, ways of attempting to build Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Tzedakah (giving) into our lives and our family patterns, and how we feel about lighting Shabbat candles if we need to blow them out to leave the house before they burn out.

The discussion was based on a few chapters of reading from the book Living Judaism, by Rabbi Wayne Dosick. CommunityLearningBook-Wayne-Dosick Due to busy schedules, not everyone had completed the reading, yet everyone was able to jump in and share their thoughts.

The next Sunday morning Community Learning is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015 at the JCC.  Please Contact Rabbi Michal for more info. All are welcome.