Friday, April 24, 2015

Parshat Tazriya/Metzora 2015 -- Who's In and Who's Out

I will begin with three short stories of scenes in my life.

Story #1: Ken and I find ourselves a few times monthly in Baltimore at Tudor Heights, the assisted living facility that is now my parents’ home, in spite of the fact that my mom, who has dementia, is never sure where she is, and the frustration of my dad who still has quite a clear sense of where he is. Sometimes I can go with a cheery countenance and interact with all the people who want to interact with me, whether or not their speech is clear, regardless of how bent over they are, and without regard to their appearance. Other times, it is hard as I am confronted by the frailty of our human condition and its natural state of deterioration in the people who call Tudor Heights home. So it is with those of us who have our parents who are living well into their nineties and beyond, who cannot live with the rest of us in our daily world.

Story #2: Years ago, at the beginning of my career when I taught in an elementary Jewish Day School, I was not quite sure what to do with this particular Parsha. So, I focused on the discussion of those with Tzara’at and explained how people had a disease that made it difficult for people to be around them and they would be separated from the larger community. At that time, Elephant Man was making the rounds and one of my students knew about the story from his parents who had just seen the show. He asked the following question: Isn’t it possible that the reason for their separation from the larger community was to protect them from being called names or made to feel badly because of how they looked and not to protect society from them? So, while this is not a reason that the text necessarily provides us with directly, one is left to consider the notion of this additional reason and its potential benefit.

Story #3: About four years ago, when I was spending the summer at the Hartman Institute, I chose to take a “tiyyul” to the former Leper Colony across the street in the German Colony. I spend an afternoon learning about the life of those who were quarantined in this institution and what their lives were like – being set apart from their families, communities, friends and all normalcy of life, as they knew it. There are pictures that show slices of life from that time that leave us to question what it was like for those who were separated from society because of a condition that was the reality of their existence and its potential harm to others, while this separation was no “fault” of their own. Nonetheless, their compound was fenced in and isolated from the world that they had known previously. Potentially, they might have returned to that life but not without the stigma of having been in this colony.

While all of this is clearly understood, it leads to difficult discussions and sad considerations. How do we discuss the content of these Torah portions in a manner in which we can extrapolate important lessons for the reality of our lives today? How do we discern these lessons given the focus of the text itself?

As we read in Leviticus/VaYikra 13: 45 - 46:

The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. [As long as] he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.

Is this quarantine or ostracism? How do we balance concerns for public safety and health with our compassion for the individual? What will life be like when the leper returns to society, which he or she can do, once the disease has abated? Will he or she always carry that title – the leper? Is this a case of attempting to keep the community itself ever so pure or is it a matter of considerations of health for all members of the community? What kindnesses are there to find in looking at the situation of the one with leprosy?

As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg comments: …understandably, [this portion] has a reputation as the portion about which rabbis least want to preach. But there is little more important in human society than our attitudes toward illness and those who suffer from it.

In Moed Katan 14b to 15b the lot of the one with leprosy is discussed. Within the context of this conversation, there is an attempt to come to a better understanding of the reasons for separation. As is often the case, the methodology used in the Gemara is employed and in attempting to find the explanation for this separation, the Leper is compared both to the one who has been excommunicated from the community and the mourner who is exempt from all aspects of community life. These comparisons range in topics such as permissibility of studying Torah, wearing of Tefillin and Tzitzit, greeting others in the community, laundering their clothes, eating together with the individual and so much more.

In one case, that of the one who is Menudeh or the one who is excommunicated from the community, the individual has done something wrong and in the second comparison, that of the Ovel or the mourner, we are dealing with someone who is in distress over their loss, so all expectations of society are removed from him or her. Is this exclusion in the case of the Metzora an expression of kindness and compassion as in the case of the Ovel or something else?

If you look back at our text, the Metzora lets his hair grow, does not bathe and wears torn clothes. So too does the mourner. Clearly, there are elements that are so similar, as Wittenberg and others point out. Yet, there is one profound difference. The Metzora, as we learn in the Gemara, must remain alone. This is not true for the mourner. In fact, we bring the community into the home, that is, the space of the mourner to comfort him or her; how do we do this for the one who suffers from leprosy and is very much alone in isolation and outside of the city?

Rav Soloveitchik explains this contrast between the ovel and the metzora in one of his published lectures (Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari, vol. 2, pp. 192-194), when speaking about Yom Tov and its status regarding these two categories of people. Mourning observances are suspended on Yom Tov, because, as our Gemara in Moed Katan (14b) explains, the public festival celebration in the community overrides the personal obligations of mourning. A metzora, by contrast, is not permitted to re-enter his city or go to Jerusalem to offer the festival sacrifices; in this case, the public mitzva of the holiday celebration does not override the individual’s personal restrictions. It is interesting to note that in Masechet Hagiga, where there are so many excluded classes of people in discussing the offerings that all of Israel comes to present, who are then discussed and reconsidered so that they can be part of the Kehilah, the metzora is never even on the list. Rav Soloveitchik explains that part of the definition of the metzora status is exclusion, as implied and reflected by the command of “badad yeisheiv.” A mourner, however, is still included within the community, who, in fact, bears an obligation to embrace him and support him during his time of anguish. So again, who is there for the metzora? What obligation, if any, does the Jewish community have to be there for this person, one of their own?

What exactly is this Tzara’at? Are we immuned? There are those who suggest that given that Tzara’at comes to our attention as the punishment that Miriam suffers in BaMidbar due to her crimes of speech; perhaps this disease that is seemingly of the skin is truly of the heart. That is to say, if our actions are not coming from a place of true intentionality, we can suffer surface indications of this inner turmoil. Think of what we know all too well today about physical and external indications of stress that is internal.

We should note at this point that this Tza’ra’at in our Parsha does spread to the house, that is, to the possessions of the person afflicted. There are many discussions that correlate this spread to all that is owned to a preoccupation one may have with their material wealth to the exclusion of their more honorable intentions regarding society. This is clearly an interesting direction to take this discussion, as it gives us something to work with. If we step back and re-examine our lives, then supposedly we can eradicate this scourge from our lives and the isolation and quarantine that accompanies it.

But even if this is the case, this has not resolved the problem of those who are excluded from our society. We have spoken often here about so many groups that were once maligned and marginalized in our community of observant Judaism that now have their place or are in the process of being accorded their rightful place in our community with all inherent rights. But here, we still have the problem of those who are too sick, old, infirmed, or compromised to be part of our community. How do we include them? How do we use our own purist intentions, acknowledge the many ways in which we are blessed, and show these members of our community, these people in our lives that we have not forgotten them? How do we bring the community from the outside into their lives as we do with the ovlim in our community?

I will end by using the inspiration of a written text by Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels, an alumnus of D’var Tzedek, one of many Social Justice institutions that are popping up and doing wonderful work in our larger community. Fortunately, the message of our parshah is that the plagued person as well as space —or our own plagued hearts—can be cured. Parshat Metzora provides us with a process. First, the affected area is inspected and isolated. Then, if necessary, the specific affected area that bears the tzara’at is removed and replaced in the case of a home and treated and cured in the case of a person. The process for healing the biblical home as well as the one who dwells in it should provide a blueprint for healing our own ailments of the heart—greed, selfishness and failure to mend the world. Whenever our hearts stray from kindness and compassion, we must first inspect and investigate the selfishness, apathy or hardness inside of us. We can then attempt to remove these malignancies, and allow our hearts to be filled with compassion.

We may not be able to completely discern the actual lot of the Metzora in Biblical society in terms of the need for compassion, but we can and should use the reality of their existence to consider how we should work to NOT exclude individuals from our lives today and insure that the compassion that God consistently shows as RACHMANA pervades our actions, our intentions and our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.

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