When Truth Hurts

What do you think is the cruelest punishment that society can inflict?  The obvious answer is the death penalty, because we think that there is nothing worse than death.  The correct answer is, however, solitary confinement.

Why? Research has shown that the clinical effects of isolation are tantamount to extreme physical torture. And thus, contrary to the stereotype of all death row inmates filing endless appeals to prolong their lives in jail, a significant number of inmates on death row elect to forgo appeals and choose execution over prolonged solitary confinement.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we read about “tzara’as”, which is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. In fact, tzara’as are blemishes that can appear on one’s clothing, the walls of a person’s home and, ultimately, the body of a person who engages in “lashon hara,” which is normally understood as derogatory speech, usually about another person.

Developing tzara’as is a gradual process, and when unmitigated, it leads to a procedure in which the High Priest proclaims the gossip-monger to be “unclean,” expelling that person from the community to live alone until cured.

Unlike the secular laws of defamation where truth is a defense, the laws of lashon hara don’t give the gossip-monger that “out.” As a matter of fact, there is a presumption that the person is convinced that his or her gossip is true! If the person was spreading false gossip – slander – then it’s an entirely different sin, because we should not misuse the power of speech to lie. After all, truth is a Divine attribute, and we want to emulate divinity.

So can we be punished for our negative speech – when what we say is true? And why is the punishment one of expulsion and isolation?  After all, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

According to the Torah, however, not only do our words actually hurt the person we are talking about, but they also hurt the person who is speaking lashon hara as well as the person or people listening to it. It’s the perfect trifecta of bad. Is that fair?

We often think that our perceptions and opinions about a situation or person are the truth, which makes us feel justified and right. We create stories in our head and then we live in the stories we create, not even knowing the difference between story and “fact.”  We decide the “truth” and anyone who doesn’t buy into our version of reality is also wrong.

Deep down, the source of all conflict really lies in the ego’s incessant need to be right, and the lengths we go to defend that need. It is this form of the ego that disintegrates relationships, undermines the fabric of society and disconnects us from the oneness and unity we should feel with our fellow and even with the natural world – hence, even our inanimate objects are affected with the blemishes of tzara’as.  




Today, the focus of wellness is on the mind-body connection. The Torah teaches us the mind-body-soul connection. Gossip is only possible when we are ruled by the unhealthy part of our ego, which is rigidly self-absorbed and sees itself as wholly separate from the other person, and therefore unaffected by any pain that is caused.


Such a person is already disconnected from others, from the community, from God, and even from him or herself. Therefore, the punishment of expulsion is to help the person understand this, by getting the person to feel that pain and then return to the state of connection.


Being expelled, cast out, etc. are so painful for a psyche that fears disconnection that they are powerful forms of control. We are wired for connection. Our need for love and belonging is one of our highest needs. But when we are driven by our unhealthy ego, we can override our wiring.


In the wilderness, where we lived in a high state of holiness, a mind-body-soul connection betrayed or conveyed our true inner state. The outer was an accurate reflection of the inner. What you said behind someone’s back became written on your own body. We simply couldn’t fake our way out – or back in.


When the person truly felt the pain of disconnection and then corrected him or herself – mind, body and soul – so that the body was visibly healed from its blemishes – then, and only then was that person ready for the process of re-entry into community.


The Torah is not trying to break us with an elaborate game of “Time Out;” rather, the Torah is teaching us how to stay in the game. It’s not just that the person recovers to his or her former state, but that the person should grow to attain a new level of awareness – post-traumatic-growth syndrome!


A society that allows unhealthy egos to run rampant, causing divisiveness and fragmentation, is unhealthy. A holy society, on the other hand, recognizes the deeper understanding that in diminishing others, we also diminish ourselves.


True peace is based on wholeness and connection.  When we check our unhealthy egos at the door, therefore, the gates of harmony open wide.

Judaism – It’s NOT to Die For

When something seems to go wrong,
it’s invariably part of a larger right.

~ Jed McKenna ~

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

As I write this, a dearly cherished friend lies in an ICU with a massive brain bleed; his allotted time on this earth is down to the count of hours.   In my view, the world is a lot better off with my friend in it, and so his shocking premature death hits very hard.  For the umpteenth time, it seems, I am engaging in that age–old theological enterprise, “theodicy,” which, according to scholar James A, Diamond, refers to “the justification of a benevolent God by reconciling His goodness with what appears as injustice and undeserved suffering in the world.”  I know I’m dating myself, but that Monty Python portrayal of God as a giant foot that comes down from heaven to squash the puny humans below resonates with a lot of people.

Thus, in Shemini, we have one of those Monty Python moments, a Biblical buzz kill, if you will. For several weeks, we have been reading – and re-reading – the intricate details of the building of the Mishkan, which was the portable Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Ten Commandments.  Spiritually, the Mishkan represented a portal and a tangible connection between man and God.  At long last, in an elaborate ritual conducted by Aaron and his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, the Mishkan was dedicated with fire-blazing pomp and ceremony.  In a sort of private “after-party,” the two young men snuck into the Holy of Holies of the Mishkan bringing with them an incense offering, which the Torah described as a “strange fire which God had not commanded.”  As before, a fire descended from heaven, but instead of consuming the offering, it consumed Nadav and Avihu instead, killing them on the spot.

Playing the Blame Game

One explanation was that they were drunk.  Lawyers refer to this as discrediting the victim.  After all, one does not enter God’s inner chamber in an inebriated state and expect to survive the encounter.   Another explanation is that they chose to worship God in an unauthorized manner, making up their own version of divine service. What chutzpah!

Even so, a God that metes out the death penalty for spiritual hi-jinks is rather harsh.  Such a view portrays God not just as unloving, but also as the ultimate petty bureaucrat in heaven, elevating form over substance to a ridiculous extreme.  Before accepting the Torah, we were wooed with the language of love.  Talk about “the morning after!”  Did the Jewish people need to be taught such a lesson?  The answer is “yes,” but not what you may think.

In an article entitled, The Pursuit of the Spiritual Life, Rabbi Shneur cites the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as portraying Nadav and Avihu not as arrogant, undisciplined drunks but, in fact, as two highly spiritually aware and engaged individuals.  Accordingly, their deaths arose not as a punishment from God for misbehavior, but rather, a natural consequence of their deep spiritual yearning.  According to the Kabbalah, Rabbi Shneur explains, there are two primary drives in the human experience: the drive to be grounded and also the drive, to the point of extreme yearning even, for spiritual experience.  Nadav and Avihu’s deep longing to experience God was fulfilled, to the point where their physical bodies were extinguished, as if their holiness was subsumed within God.

Thus, Moses consoled Aaron with these words: “This is what God meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I will sanctify Myself, and be glorified before all the people.’  And Aaron was silent.” (10:3)

Given the fact that Moses considered the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to be a sanctification of God- and not a desecration to God – I don’t understand why there is a need to create the narrative of a human crime and divine punishment.  Perhaps a deeper lesson is that we can have a benevolent, loving God and also see that Nadav and Ahivu were righteous and spiritually striving individuals.  Sometimes, you can have a “right” and a “right.”

Ironically, however, it can still be a “wrong,” in that Nadav and Avihu are not role models for us to emulate.  God doesn’t want us to die for the sake of Torah; rather we should live for the sake of Torah – fully in this world – albeit grounded and balanced between our physical and spiritual drives.  Thus, our soul-driven urges are expressed in this world via those physical acts, which infuse this earthly realm with holiness. The macro becomes the micro and vice versa.

Active Acceptance

Aaron’s “silence” at the news of the death of his sons was neither passive submission nor denial.  Rather, it was a state of being “broken-open,” and making a moral choice of possibility in the face of the impossible. While his illness is a hard pill to swallow, my friend did not waste his precious remaining time with bitterness and complaints and he did not disconnect from that which had given his whole life a sense of meaning and purpose.

Beyond Blame

Recognizing that it is a very hard lesson, nevertheless, when we can make an internal space that holds within it both suffering and a loving God, we may find therein a deeper connection to our Creator, a greater appreciation for blessings, and the motivation to recommit our lives to that which truly counts with more fervor and dedication.   



Making Mistakes and Fixing Them – The Right of Repair

indexBy repairing our relationship with God, we will repair our relationship with everyone and everything around us.”    –Author Unknown

The Joyless Relationship

Oblivious to her surroundings at a crowded boarding area in the Philadelphia airport, the woman seated across from me loudly informed her husband in clear and unmistakable terms exactly what she expected from him. Your job is to make me happy.  Your only job, she continued, adding a little oomph for emphasis is to make me happy. It is not my job to make you happy.

Judging by the blank look on her husband face and his utter lack of acknowledgement that she was even speaking to him, I gathered this was not a newsflash. And by the looks of their worn-out elderly faces, I imagined he had heard this directive hundreds of times.

The Guilt-Ridden Relationship

With the hundreds of commandments given to us in the Torah that seemingly regulate our every move albeit to serve God, one could conclude that God’s overriding message to the Jewish people could sound like the wife in the airport. Listen up people. Your job is to make Me happy. Your only job is to make Me happy. It is not My job to make you happy.   One could kinda get that feeling – right?  It’s not that much of a stretch.  But it would be dead wrong.

Previously in the story-line, we committed the sin of the Golden Calf (not good). But then we were forgiven, and we faithfully built the Tabernacle (good), which became the vehicle for the Divine Presence of God to connect with the Jewish people (really good). But now, in the Torah portion, Tzav, God is instructing Moses about the sacrificial offerings that the Jewish people will have to bring to atone for their sins – their future sins – as in the ones they haven’t even yet committed!

What’s with the Eternal Rub-in?

Wait a minute. This seems rather dis-affirming, doesn’t it? After the Golden Calf, we were just getting back on track with God.  Did God have to rub in the fact that making mistakes is inevitable, thus ruining the moment of reunification with this “buzz-kill” from on high?  Imagine getting married and before you even check into the hotel on your honeymoon, you have to sit down for a lecture on conflict resolution, fair fighting and how to appease your spouse.

Some Simple Truths

Each and every one of us make mistakes, and we will continue to make mistakes until we are either dead, or we lack capacity. Along with free will, making mistakes is simply wired into the very mechanism of creation.  Perhaps if Adam had understood that fact, he would not have stayed hidden behind a bush and he could have come clean.   It is crucial to understand that while we in fact “make” mistakes; we are not the mistake itself.  Confusion on that point keeps us stuck in shame.  Hence, when confronted with a mistake we lash out and blame others, and therefore we fail to learn from our errors and we cannot grow.

That’s not what God wants for us.  We need to understand that we can atone for mistakes and we can change our thoughts and behaviors. Thus, Tzav, God lays out the way to deal with mistakes as part of the process of growth and restoring connection, otherwise known as the “right of repair.”

For example, marriage expert, John Gottman, often talks about how a key factor in protecting marriages against divorce is for couples to learn the art of the repair attempt, because it stops negativity from escalating, and it corrects a couple from heading off course.  In all relationships – and especially the one we have with ourselves – we need a way back in.

The Joyful Relationship

The laws of the sacrifices gave us a way to process and rectify mistakes, to repair and restore our connection with God. And we needed to know that was possible from the very outset, or else we could get lost in self-condemnation, blame and shame.  Hyper-focusing on our mistakes, and thinking we are beyond repair, leads to disconnection and an outward expression of anger that traps us in a downward negativity spiral.

Furthermore, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, “korban” is related to “karov” which means “to draw close.”  It is specifically after we have messed up and feel so far away that we are given an opportunity to come back to the One who loves us and forgives us.  The separation we can feel at times is not that God is far away from us, but that we have removed ourselves from God. The sacrificial offering is the “right of repair” that draws us close once again.   The mechanism is already in place.

And that kind of truth, that amazing gift, can’t wait to be told. God was telling us something about fundamental human nature and relationships. We needed to understand that we are not perfect and that we will surely make mistakes – but the relationship will endure nevertheless! We need to be able to take risks, to be vulnerable and to be authentic; otherwise, we can become paralyzed by the constraints of perfectionism, which is a life-crippling syndrome.

The Eternal Relationship

In Tzav, God also instructs us to ensure that an eternal flame is lit. Providing the means to process and metabolize and move through our errors is the vehicle for growth, and it frees us to maintain our connection with that which is eternal – our connection to God and our inner flame.

What God is telling us, through all these commandments, is that our job – our only job – is to connect with God, and in so doing, we will be connected with our truest, deepest eternal selves. Appreciating the critical difference between making a mistake and being a mistake and utilizing the “right of repair” will help get us back on track with keeping lit the eternal flame of our soul, and living our life’s true mission.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. If you weren’t scared of failure and making mistakes, what risks would you take right now in your life?


  1. What do you fear will happen if you make mistakes, especially in your relationships? What are you most scared you will lose? When thinking more about it, is this based in any kind of reality? If so, is the relationship really solid to begin with?


  1. List a few mistakes that you have made that you felt there was no way of repairing. Now rethink them and recognize that making mistakes is human and unavoidable. Write yourself a message acknowledging that while you made a mistake, you are not a mistake, and forgive yourself. How does telling yourself that you are not your mistake make you feel?