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Metzorah: Finding Healing

04/11/2022 10:13:23 AM

Apr11

Rabbi Ezray

As I sat down to write my sermon this week, my soul was troubled, and I was searching for comfort. And for all that Judaism brings comfort in extraordinary ways, the burdens of our world felt too heavy. Being from Sacramento and witnessing senseless mass killings of streets so familiar to me was painful. The litany of prayers and thoughts for families of victims and those wounded, which we have offered far too many times in recent months, felt hollow. Couple that with scenes of vicious war crimes in Ukraine that are brutal and vicious; it is unfathomable and devastating. Terror attacks in Israel resulting in painful loss of precious life and fear continue, friends are suffering from COVID; I felt an intense combination of anger, sadness, and helplessness. What can possibly be said in the face of such overwhelming pain?

I turned to the messages of Shabbat HaGadol; the Sabbath preceding Passover where we lift up messages connected to the Seder to seek some comfort and insight.

I thought about the message of naming the pain caused by evil: Va’ya’rei’u otanu ha’mitzrim; The Egyptians treated us terribly, v’yi’an’un’nu; they persecuted us. It brought to mind what the Russians are doing in Ukraine and what gun violence is doing to America. We need to name pain and that it is a piece of our reflecting about how we will celebrate Passover.

Va’nitz’ak el Adonai; We lifted up our voices to God. We need to lift up our voices and cry out. It is only when we cry out about war crimes and mass killings that redemption can begin as we reflect on what to do.

Va’yar et An’ya’nu; God saw our persecution. Indeed, God cares. I believe that with all my heart. I don’t believe in a God who intervenes; human freedom and laws of nature require a God who withdraws to allow those forces to play out resulting in suffering, but amidst all of that God cares.

I reflected on Rabban Gamliel who tells us to point to the shank bone and remember the Passover lamb, where we acted to bring our redemption. We risked putting blood on the doorpost. We became actors in redemption. Passover is about all those small acts of courage and together changed the course of history: Pharoah’s daughter finding compassion for the baby in the water and bringing him into the palace to raise him; the midwives who refused to kill Jewish babies; Moses and Aaron who continued to encourage us in the face of hopeless moments. It is small acts by courageous individuals which creates a dynamic of change.

I believe each of those connections between our upcoming holiday and the painful events of this moment, but as I wrote this sermon, I realized that those lessons; each of which is powerfully true and important; were not bringing me comfort. And maybe the most important lesson I can share is that it is okay, and even important to sit with discomfort. It is a skill too few of us know how to do, myself included.

As I was sitting with that discomfort and sadness, I read a beautiful teaching from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from a couple of years ago and it soothed my soul, and that is good too. He wrote about the amazing film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, where Tom Hanks plays the beloved American children’s television personality, Mister Rogers. Rabbi Sacks writes: “What makes the film unusual is that it is an unabashed celebration of the power of human goodness to heal broken hearts.” That is the message I needed this week to hear, live, and teach.

We approach the pain of the world with goodness. It is a lesson I know and have taught, but need reminding amidst a beautiful story.

For those who have not seen the film, watch it! The plot is based on a true story of a gifted journalist assigned to write a story about Fred Rogers. The journalist, given a different name in the film, but whose real name is Tom Junod was a troubled soul, haunted by a badly broken relationship with his father. He was the type of journalist who wrote piercing and often angry critiques of his subjects. We watch as Mr. Rogers turns sharp, cynical questions away from himself and toward Tom. He had the amazing ability to shift negative questions into positive affirmations, even to a jaded journalist versed in cynicism and negativity. In Rabbi Sacks’ description: “Exuding calmness and quiet, the listening silence, that allows and encourages the journalist to talk about himself.”

In the film, it was extraordinary and inspiring to watch Fred Rogers help Tom Junod acknowledge his own failings and find forgiveness for his father. Listen to a short dialogue from the film:

Tom: “You love people like me.”
Fred Rogers: “What are people like you? I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life.”
Tom: “Broken people.”
Fred Rogers: “I don’t think you are broken. I know you are a man of conviction. A person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are.” 

Rabbi Sacks points out that in a few brief sentences, Fred Rogers helps reframe the Tom Junod’s self-image, as well as his relationship with his father. In another article, Tom Junod shared the impact of his encounters with Mr. Rogers: “What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.”

Rabbi Sacks used Fred Rogers and our portion to teach the power of words to heal. Our portion, as Noah explained is about skin disease/tzar’a’at, which the rabbis connect with hurtful words and gossip. They go back to a scene where Miriam, Moses’ sister, is stricken with skin disease after gossiping about him.  Rabbinic tradition connects the events symbolically associating gossip and skin disease so that we have the opportunity to reflect upon our words. Using physical issues as a way to teach moral lessons is how rabbis bring a portion like Metzora to life. And it is not just individuals who are stricken with tza’ra’at, but homes are afflicted with some type of moldy growth, also called tza’ra’at. The Rabbis say this is a moral warning reflecting the breakdown of social values.

How our times feel like such a plague!

And might the response be for each of us to see ourselves like Mr. Rogers; one who uses words, listening, silences, communication to bring healing? Rabbi Sacks puts it eloquently: “We seem to have forgotten the message of [this portion]: that evil speech is a plague. It destroys relationships, rides roughshod over people’s feelings, debases the public square, turns politics into a jousting match between competing egos, and defiles all that is sacred about our common life.”

It need not be like this. We can reject hurtful words and channel people like Fred Rogers: listening, talking gently in ways that affirm, and helping others see through our words what might be. In our own interpersonal lives and community, our words can reject the hatred, harsh judgment, and mean behavior that has become all too common. We can help create a world transformed by love and kindness; a true neighborhood. We should be devastated by the cruelty we are witnessing and be activists in bringing about change. And an avenue to bring that change is in each and every encounter and the words we choose.

There is a powerful vision in the haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol. We read the prophet Malachi foretelling the coming of Elijah who we open the door for and sing about during the Seder, imagining a messianic time of peace. Malachi imagines that Elijah will restore the heart of the parents to the children and the heart of the children to their parents. Relationships can be difficult and painful.  Our words and action can create hurt. Ultimately, Passover is the healing that comes as we turn toward one another with heart and love. That is true redemption! It begins with us using our words for holiness and healing, love and connection.  As we speak words of turning toward one another, we find small and large ways to bring those words into fruition. Together, we can create a world where words are used to heal, and change begins to happen. May it be so.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782