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Rabbis' Blog

The Kohen and Jewish Dermatology


This week’s double Parsha of Tazria–Metzora deals with the various laws of ritual purity and impurity. A most prominent cause for ritual impurity was a mysterious skin condition that could manifest itself on a person’s body in various ways. There is no accurate English translation to the condition so I will refer to it by its biblical name Tzaraat.

The unfortunate individual diagnosed with tzaraat was subject to the highest level of ritual impurity, banished from the community until the condition healed and underwent a lengthy process of purification. A miraculous skin disorder that served to correct certain spiritual illnesses and applied only when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, we can learn relevant lessons in our daily lives from the laws of tzaraat.

To properly diagnose this disorder as tzaraat, one needed to be proficient in all of its complex and detailed laws. Yet even after the sage determined that this fellow suffered from this malady, only a Kohen – a member of the priestly family of Aharon – had the authority to pronounce the condition as tzaraat and the leper as a Metzorah. The ritual impurity of tzaraat only took effect after the Kohen’s pronouncement.


The ritual impurity of the Metzorah was so severe that he or she was quarantined from the community until the condition healed. Such a harsh reality cannot be implemented based on cold logic alone. Only a Kohen, a blood descendant of Aharon the High Priest, the paragon of selfless love for every Jew, can make such a pronouncement. Only one who truly loves his fellow Jew can identify the evil in another and begin the process of healing.

So when you notice someone that needs correction, first identify where your perspective is coming from. Are you genuinely concerned for the welfare of another? Do you have their best interest in mind? Are you approaching this with a “holier than thou” attitude? Once you have answered these questions, you are empowered and obligated to change someone’s life for the better.


Show Your Jewish Fins and Scales

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There is a common misconception that Torah is either a legal text detailing the specifics of Jewish law or a record of Jewish history. In reality, Torah is a guide, providing pertinent lessons in every area of life. An interesting detail in the laws of kosher provides a powerful illustration of this dynamic.

In this week’s parsha Shemini, the Torah provides two signs for kosher fish, fins and scales. The Talmud states that a fish with scales most definitely has fins but a fish with fins does not necessarily have scales. If so, why was it necessary to mention fins altogether? If you see scales on the fish, its status is clear! Even more perplexing is the fact that the Torah mentions fins before scales.

Scales serve as a protective layer from negative aquatic elements and the fins allow the fish to navigate the currents.

A Jew is provided with two crucial tools in life, Torah and Mitzvot. Torah for the Jew is like fins for a fish. More than just a moral compass, Torah study provides a Jew the moral strength to swim against the influential currents of our world and to navigate the often turbulent seas of life. But Torah study without mitzvah observance is like a fish with fins and no scales. It is not the Jewish way.

Mitzvot for the Jew are like scales for a fish, creating a spiritual protective shield so that the Jew is not adversely affected from the world he is compelled to engage. And to properly observe mitzvot, a bare minimum of Torah knowledge is required. Therefore fins are listed first of the kosher fish signs.

Let us proudly display our “kosher” signs by increasing our Torah study and committing to greater Mitzvah observance. There is no time better than now.

Leaping Into Change

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The name Pesach rarely evokes images of obstacle racers leaping over obstacles barreling to the finish line. The taste of Matzah, memories of long Seder nights and Afikoman gifts are the traditional Pesach fare.

The nuanced meaning of Pesach has been lost in the English translation of “Passover.” The most accurate way to translate “Pesach” in the context of the Exodus is to “Leap Over.

As G-d prepared the Israelites for the imminent redemption from the two-century-old Egyptian slavery, He instructed them to sacrifice, roast and eat a lamb as a “Pesach Sacrifice” on the eve of the 15th on Nissan. They should put the sacrificial blood on their doorposts so that at midnight, G-d will strike the first-born Egyptians and skip the Jewish homes. The relevant verse (Exodus, 12:23) reads “Pasach Hashem Al Hapetach.”

The name links the sacrifice to the miracle, because in Biblical Hebrew, the word “Pesach” means to leap.

The famous 12th century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) explains: The sacrifice is called “Pesach” because of the skipping and the jumping over, which the Holy One, blessed be He, skipped over the Israelites’ homes that were between the Egyptians homes. He jumped from one Egyptian to another Egyptian, and the Israelite in between was saved. Likewise, you should perform the service in the manner of skipping and jumping, in commemoration of its name: Pesach.

How does “skipping and jumping” adequately describe the manner in which the Israelites prepared the Pascal Lamb?

Jumping is not a routine method of reaching a destination. When confronted with an obstruction we need to disregard the obstacle and elevate ourselves above it. For the Israelites to comply with the instructions to prepare the sacrifice and to be ready to leave Egypt, they needed to break their routine.

Ancient Egypt was the superpower of the world. The leading civilization in technology, philosophy and the arts. Yet it was also a morally corrupt and pagan nation. The vast majority of Jacob’s descendants dwelled in this cultural swamp of idolatry and immorality for over two centuries. Though they we distinguishable by their names, language and unique mode of dress, they had assimilated to Egyptian behavior and beliefs. To the point that four fifths of the Jewish population were uninterested in leaving Egypt, and perished before the Exodus.

Being worthy of redemption called for radical moves, such as slaughtering a sheep, which was the Egyptian deity they had worshipped just a few days prior and following Moses into the vast wilderness with insufficient food supplies or housing options. In doing so, they leaped out of the Egyptian outlook to a divine and holy reality. Only fifty days later, they enthusiastically accepted the Torah and Mitzvoth in all of its lofty moral obligations.

The Exodus of Pesach serves as a prototype for all subsequent redemptions. To break bad habits, mend broken relationships and to grow in religious commitment we must be ready to jump. Stubbornly following routine will produce predictable results. Breaking free from perceived limitations produces miracles.

Education and Sharing Day, El Paso

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Mayor Oscar Leeser has proclaimed today, April 7, 2017, to be Education and Sharing Day in El Paso. This follows an American tradition of proclaiming the Rebbe’s birthday, 11 Nissan, as a day of reflection and commitment to the values of education and good deeds in the United States. Every US President since 1978 has made this annual proclamation for Education and Sharing Day, USA.

This is a tribute to the Rebbe's life long efforts and advocacy for the betterment of education for American youth. The Rebbe emphasized that education should not be limited to the acquisition of wisdom and pursuit of a career, but rather, the education system must focus primarily on building good character and ethics.

Why is it that the Rebbe’s life and vision is summed up by the virtue of education? His contributions to Jewish life were vast, larger than life. So, why the emphasis on education?

On Monday evening we will all sit down by the Seder table to celebrate Pesach - the Festival of Freedom. The Seder was designed with the intention of quipping the child’s curiosity, bringing about the realization that this night is different from all other nights. After the child unabashedly expresses puzzlement with the goings on by asking the Ma Nishtana, the parent is obligated to respond by explaining the dynamics of that historic event in our history.

Even if there are no children at the table – the genre of the story remains the same: Educational. Geared to engage the innocence of youth and a sensory experience throughout. At the Seder we are all teachers and students.

The message of education pulses through the theme of the entire festival. The freedom granted to us over three millennia ago was the opportunity to educate. I am not referring to literacy and mathematics, of which the Jews had a thriving educational system during the two centuries of Egyptian slavery.

However, it was an education devoid of meaning and purpose, steeped in the local cultural swamp of idolatry and the promotion of self.

The Exodus was not merely a correction  of a terrible wrong, rather an urgent call to allow a nation to realize their full potential. The opportunity to transcend the self and connect with the divine. We were not granted a vacation from harsh labor, rather we were empowered to accomplish a loftier mission.

In our generation the Rebbe emphasized that we are all teachers. To bring the awareness of G-d to every corner of the globe and to empower all of humanity to achieve their full potential in bringing more goodness and kindness to our world.

Please join me in observing Education and Sharing Day by reflecting on the fact that educating others is not only for professional teachers. The Rebbe often quoted the Chassidic saying, “If you know Aleph, teach Aleph!”  Today, reach deep inside and find the “Aleph” that will be meaningful to someone else.

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