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Tzav 5782 - The Humanity of Embodied Judaism

March 19, 2022 - 16 Adar II, 5782

Way back in Parashat Vaera, when the Israelites are still in Egypt, God commands Moshe: “Go to Pharaoh in the morning, behold (hinei) - he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile…” (Ex. 7:15). Midrash Tanhumah implicitly asks two questions, “Why is Pharaoh coming out to the water, and why does the Torah emphasize that action with the word hinei, or behold?” The Rabbis of Tanhumah answer: Since Pharaoh is considered a god to those around him, he goes to the water each morning to relieve himself. Thus, no one will see that he has to do something so demeaning and so human as going to the bathroom. 

Let’s contrast Pharaoh’s daily practice with an excerpt from our sacred Talmud, Brakhot 62a:

It was taught that Rabbi Akiva said: I once entered the bathroom after Rabbi Yehoshua, and I learned three things from him. I learned that one should not defecate while facing east and west, but rather, while facing north and south; I learned that one should not uncover himself while standing, but while sitting, and I learned that one should not wipe with his right hand, but with his left. Ben Azzai said to him: You were disrespectful to your teacher to that extent?! Rabbi Akiva replied: It is Torah, and I must learn.

Regardless of whether the shock value here comes from Rabbi Akiva’s actions or the open discussion of our Sages in the bathroom, the inclusion of this story in our Talmud makes clear that our holy Sages were just as human as the rest of us. While ancient Egyptians may have regarded their rulers as pure, perfect gods, Judaism has never pretended to regard our leaders and role models as gods, or even, as anything near perfect. Our patriarchs and matriarchs, our rabbis, and our kings both went to the bathroom multiple times a day and as a result of being so bodily human, made human mistakes.

In Parashat Tzav, God commands Moshe to gather kol ha-eidah, the entire congregation, to witness the bathing, dressing, and anointing of Aharon and his sons. Aharon and his sons did not come out of the womb with some sort of holier status; they didn’t come out of the womb in all of their sacred vestments. By asking Moshe to direct this ceremony in front of the entire congregation, God shows the people Israel that these Kohanim are no more godly than the rest; without a ritual bath, sacred vestments, and a specific ceremony, Aharon and his sons are just as mundanely human as everyone else in the camp. Remember, too, that our anointing ceremony comes just a few parshiyot after Aharon directs the deeply human wrongdoing of building the golden calf. No human leader, ancient or modern, has ever been or will ever be inherently spotless. 

Again and again, in our 929 learning, we come across patriarchs and matriarchs whose actions make us cringe. Between Avraham’s questionable parenting skills, Lots’ daughters’ actions towards their father, and the repeated theme of posing one’s wife as a sister, our greatest role models are nowhere near perfect. By reading our sacred Torah, we not only learn deeds and qualities we should emulate, but also, we learn about real life mistakes and their consequences. So, too, we cannot expect our leaders today to be flawless; instead, we pay attention to their mistakes and learn from them just as much as we learn from their triumphs.

Sometimes, our leaders’ mistakes are intentional, perhaps even malicious; sometimes, they are accidental, unintentional, or uninformed. Sometimes, our leaders’ deeds are harmful enough that the actors no longer deserve leadership status; sometimes, they are mistakes that can be forgiven but not forgotten. Regardless, as none of our deeds are ever swept under the rug, none of theirs can be either. As leaders in our families, companies, and classrooms, we can learn how to best keep cautious, considerate, and level-headed from the moments in which our role models are not. As much as political or entertainment media may try to convince us, leaders do not have to be perfect to be good; at the same time, even the most beloved leaders make mistakes that deserve removal from their position. As voluntary role models, our public figures do have to set a higher standard for those who look to them for guidance. As we should, they must embrace apology and admission of wrongdoing as part of their regular vocabulary. Yes, we can and should learn, admire, and teach about the positive deeds of artists and politicians who have made mistakes. And yet, when we are commanded over and over not to make idols, we are reminded not to regard any person as powerful enough to earn the status of God.

Both in last week’s and this week’s parshiyot, we are introduced to the concept of a hatat, a “miss–the-mark” offering, and an asham, a “guilt-offering.” These types of offerings are given when a priest, community leader, or regular individual commits a wrongdoing, with different variations for voluntary or accidental acts. By offering the Israelites these sacrifices, God reminds the Israelites that there is always a way to move forward from a misdeed. Whether moving forward means asking for forgiveness and making amends, or taking the relationships that have already been broken beyond repair as lessons for how to act in future relationships, our negative actions do not have to mark the end of our lives. 

Aharon knows that his wrongdoing at Sinai, and later, his gossiping with Miriam and rock-hitting with Moshe will bear consequences. Still, he keeps acting as God’s voice through Moshe; he keeps leading the people Israel as their Kohein Gadol, and he builds the reputation as our Biblical “seeker and pursuer of peace.” Unlike Moshe, he does not ask for more time on this earth, because he knows he has earned just the time he has; Aharon neither denies his misdeeds nor lets them paralyze him. I am reminded, too, of Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a former thief, con-man, and addict. Rabbi Mark became immersed in Judaism with his prison chaplain, and later, used his knowledge of addiction recovery and the criminal justice system towards building Beit T’shuvah, a successful Jewish recovery center in Los Angeles. He, too, moved forward from his darkest moments and turned the lessons he learned within them into future triumphs. Through Aharon, Rabbi Mark, and every other leader whom we admire for both their grace and their ability to admit to humanity, we better learn how to step forward in these human hearts and minds we all possess. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784