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Tazria: Bringing the Outsider In

05/04/2023 09:58:33 AM

May4

Rabbi Ezray

At first glance, it is tempting to turn away from this morning’s Torah portion. Its description of tzaraat, a terrible skin disease in all of its gory details, is hard to read. Descriptions of the afflicted person being placed outside the camp, burdened with facing the pain of terrifying disease in insolation, lifts up the painful realities of stigma and the abandonment of a person who must already feel alienated from community and perhaps distant from God.

Yet, upon a closer examination, we find insights and wisdom embedded in the text that guide us. The text may provide thoughtful wisdom about dealing with disease, understanding people who suffer, and embracing the communal responsibility to care for those who suffer.

A key lesson that rings loudly today is the detail that the Priest, the key religious figure at the time, who was to be conscious of not encountering that which would render him impure, is the person who goes out to examine the person. The person isn’t abandoned. Picture the Priest, the highest religious authority of those times, standing face to face with the afflicted person, listening and caring. And when it was safe, helping to bring the person back into community.

Like the Priest, we are called to go out to those who have been excluded from community, to see them and do what we can to help them return to community.  The verb used for what the Priest does throughout the text is: ra’ah—resh/aleph/hey—to see. In Lev. 13:3 we read, ve’ra’a’hu—he sees it—possibly referring to his examination of the skin affliction, but it could also mean, “He sees him/her/them.” Look at verse three; one commentator, Meshech Hochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, notes that ve’ra’ahu means, “To see the wholeness of the person, not only the diseased limb. The Priest is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is afflicted.” When someone sees us in all our different pieces it changes us. We all have so many contrasting and even contradictory pieces. Ra’a’hu—see the person. Labels are transcended and all our complexities are embraced. Being seen transforms both the person being seen and the person who is doing the seeing. To see the whole person means to see their pain. We look into their eyes and see their anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, aware of the disruption to their lives and to their family that isolation brought. Sometimes they are angry or withdrawn. Sometimes illness results in insights and perspective that are positive. Our portion teaches us to see with compassionate eyes and open hearts.

The job of the priest is to bring a person back into community. Judaism does this with a ritual act to mark the moment. Rabbi Aviva Richman focuses on the detail that the person brings a chattat, often translated as a sin offering. But she clarifies that a chattat offering is that which helps reorient after a destabilizing event. In the times of the Torah an offering reorients, acknowledging what they have been through. To re-enter community a person needs to have their experience acknowledged by themselves and others. Think about all the people who have gone through COVID, other illnesses or challenges; what do these people need? I like to think of our prayer services and the love extended after loss or difficult times as a type of chattat, an offering to acknowledge, see, reorient. And there is so much more we can do to achieve this goal. 

Think broadly about how you can be a person who, through an action, helps re-orient after a destabilizing event. I read a beautiful article about Owen O’Neill, who worked as a nurse for a hospice in Palm Beach County, Florida. He noticed that many families who lost loved ones often couldn’t bear to look at their loved ones’ empty wheelchairs or hospital beds and would ask him to remove the equipment. To begin to reorient after the destabilizing reality of loss these families needed someone to see what caused them pain; in this case, it was the medical equipment that remained. Owen began to take away the devices and deliver them to patients he’d meet at the low-income clinic where he volunteered who couldn’t otherwise afford the equipment. Sometimes, when you help someone re-orient by truly seeing what their need is you end up with unexpected blessings for others.  Owen and his team have equipped more than 18,000 children and adults with everything from adaptive strollers to walkers. The chattat offering reminds us that we too possess the capacity to reorient someone after a destabilizing event. It requires a heart that sees their needs and responds with deeds. 

Another way of finding meaning in this morning’s portion comes when we ask what are the current illnesses that fill us with fear and cause suffering, asking ourselves how we might help. In 2017, in an essay entitled “Those Who Turn Away Their Faces: Tzaraat and Stigma,” Rachel Adler writes: Tzaraat is ancient Israel’s version of what I am going to call radical illness, illness that strikes at the root of our being in the world, ravaging our communities, filling witnesses with fear. Radical illness erodes the body and often the self. It takes us and unmakes us. Radical illness seems to us arbitrary; either we do not know how to cure it or why it struck, or we do not know how to contain its spread... The paradigmatic radical illness of our own time is dementia, although AIDS, cancer, Ebola, and bird flu have been or are currently contenders for the title too.” Her article was written in 2017; if it were written today, we would certainly add COVID and fentanyl overdose to the list. We might add loneliness, mental illness, gun violence, toxic anger. As we look at radical illness, we ask, “What can we do?” We think about the efforts to create vaccines and the heroic acts of healing, and even seemingly small acts care that bring dignity. All of these embrace the need to address the current tzaraat in our midst. It also requires political will and awareness.

Columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote about how President George W. Bush started a mammoth program to fight HIV and AIDS 20 years ago. Kristoff writes that Bush’s efforts, “Turned the tide of the epidemic and has saved 25 million lives so far.” Think of it; 25 million lives. Kristoff quotes rock star, activist, and humanitarian Bono’s reflections on Bush’s efforts: “The most eloquent expression of American values anyone can think of in recent times.” Let’s honor those that did the right thing and provided American leadership to rein in one of the deadliest epidemics in history and let it remind us what we are capable of. Kristoff extends the challenge of finding cures with these words: “Bush’s efforts can be a model for other historic interventions. How about ensuring that every child worldwide can at least finish primary school? What about seeking to eliminate the curse of child poverty in America?” There are solutions, and our study of tzar’a’at reminds us of the work we need to do.

Let’s emulate the Priest; seeing pain and bringing people back into community and identifying suffering that we can heal with focused efforts. This is every day and every person. One last detail of the how the person with tzaraat is returned to community. The ritual for the purification of the metzorah when their illness remits is certainly strange; after shaving their hair and immersing in water, they offer the chattat, the blood of which is dabbed on their right ear, thumb, and finger. Why would we do this? This seemingly strange act is quite similar to the ritual for anointing Aaron’s sons as High Priests. The ritual seems to say, this afflicted individual is as holy and as pure as the High Priest. We see the person with tzaraat as the equivalent of the son of Aaron the High Priest, essentially saying to those who have suffered, “You are the highest example of holiness, just like the High Priest.” We restore dignity and eliminate stigma and shame. This is our sacred task.  By listening, seeing, creating space to share pain, and welcoming back to community we treat people like the High Priest.

You are all Priests, capable of being healers and finding healing. Let’s embrace the intimacy of the ritual of treating the metzora as a High Priest, with dignity and love. The healing power of community has the capacity to bring in those who are outside. We are meant to be healers and there are times when we need healing. Let us live in every way seeing ourselves as worthy of being the High Priest and treating others as if they indeed are the High Priest.

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784