Parashah Ponderings

What Tazria has to teach us about love and compassion

Parashat Tazria 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת תַזְרִיעַ
Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1-13:59 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the skin affliction, tzaraat, a kind of scaling and discoloration of the skin like eczema or psoriasis that was considered contagious. Under certain circumstances, tzaarat would render the affected person ritually pure or impure. To determine the nature of the affliction, the person with the affliction would visit the kohen gadol or one of his sons, who would examine the person. If the person had tzaraat, the priest would have the person dwell outside the camp, outside the center of the community, and the person would call out “Impure! Impure!”

The rabbinic commentary around this portion paints a picture of a compassionate society. While the person was to dwell outside the camp, it was for the sake of spiritual healing, not to ostracize the person. “The role of the Kohen,” says the Etz Hayim humash, “was not simply to diagnose the ailment (and certainly not to treat it) but to reintegrate the person into the community as soon as possible. Religion sought to include, not to isolate, the afflicted person” (p. 652). 

Furthermore, at one point in referring to the priest’s examination of the person, there is a Hebrew phrase that is translated “when the priest sees it, i.e. the affected patch of skin.” However, our chumash notes that one commentator reads this phrase as “when the priest sees him” (p. 653). By this the commentator infers that the priest is to examine the whole person, not only the diseased limb. He is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is afflicted.”

So here we have two lessons for our community today. The tradition is telling us that as a community, we should seek to allow a person with a disease or special condition to become a full member of the community, not to relegate that person to the margins because of their illness or difference. Under some circumstances, it is necessary for a person to remain apart from the community, but that should never be seen as desirable in the long run nor should it become a permanent status.

Additionally, when we see someone with an illness or difference, we are to take note of that illness or difference but then look beyond it. We should not define any human being by their disabilities, differences or limitations. This was an important lesson that Eric Stumacher taught us during Jewish Disability Awareness Month when he spoke about adapting to life with a prosthetic limb. To Eric, the loss of the limb is incidental. To any of us who know Eric and have heard his music, we know the loss of his leg is incidental.

Later in the Torah portion, we read this (Lev. 13:45):

As for the person with tzaraat, his clothes shall be rent,
his head shall be left bare,
and he shall cover over his upper lip;
and he shall call out, “Impure! Impure!”

On the face of it, these measures to tear his clothes, shave his head, wear a face mask, and to actively call attention to his state of impurity, seems unjust. It strikes the casual reader as an act of shaming. The Jewish people have known such shaming when we’ve been forced to wear clothing and yellow stars that might as well have been targets on our backs.

Again, the commentary in the chumash asks us to look at this ritual in an entirely different way. “According to the Talmud, one does this not only to warn others of the contagion but also to elicit compassion and prayers on one’s behalf (BT MK5a). It is the responsibility of an afflicted person to recognize the illness and ask for help, and it is the responsibility of the community to offer support and prayer rather than shun or ignore the afflicted” (p. 657).

We see this principle operative in our community. We maintain a lengthy misheberach list so that we remember who in our midst and who in the lives of our neighbors are in need of healing. We do not shun nor ignore those who are ill or suffering. Even more, we ask that anyone who themselves is in need of help to let us know so that we can not only pray for them, but come to their aid in any number of ways. We cannot help someone if we don’t know they need help. We have a Caring Committee that is always ready to come to the aid of our fellow congregants. And we all are prepared to respond to a call to help with that effort.

The picture of compassion that we see in this week’s Torah portion stands in sharp relief to an incident that happened this past week during the broadcast of the Academy Awards. We witnessed a comedian deviating from his script to poke fun at a female celebrity who suffers from hair loss, and then we saw that celebrity’s even more famous husband mount the stage, saunter over to the comedian, and physically assault him before returning to his seat where he then verbally berated the comedian. Neither the comedian nor the husband were in the right. 

The joke in question was hardly the most insulting ever uttered by a comedian at the Oscar’s but it did come at the expense of a modern-day metzora – someone suffering from a condition like tzaraat. It was not his place to shame her, and it was quite apparent that she did, in fact, feel shamed at that moment.

The act of assaulting the comedian was even more repulsive than the joke, however. It represented a loss of self-control, a lack of judgment, and disregard for feelings not only of the comedian but for the man’s wife and everyone who witnessed the slap. The assaulter could have chosen to appropriately rebuke the comedian in private, away from the cameras and microphones and audience. 

Again, neither party was innocent in what happened at the Oscars. It should never have happened. We need only look at this week’s Torah portion to see what a community looks like when we think before we act, when we reach out to others with compassion rather than a slap. It is a community that respects the image of the Divine in each person and offers the love and care that each person needs. 

It may be beyond us to control what happens in Hollywood, but it is well within our grasp to create a community for ourselves that reflects the value of hesed – lovingkindness – that we read about in the Torah this week. May we heed this lesson and redouble our efforts to love one another as we ourselves would like to be loved.

Parashah Ponderings

People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold a beloved elder in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. A long-time member of the congregation who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.