Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Metzora

Oscar Haber was a dear friend. This is his second yahrtzeit. He lived to be 104 years old, and I believe that he died in peace. I was at his side for much of the final days. I only met Oscar late in his life. He was a successful dentist and well-respected member of the Lexington, KY Jewish community. Oscar was a survivor of the Shoah. His story is similar to that of many survivors who had to make compromises (even ethical ones) to ensure survivability. His story is unique in that despite the very real-world traumas that forced him to make difficult choices; he never accepted the horrors as justification for anyone hurt in the process. He spent the rest of his life living teshuvah, perfecting compassion, and demonstrating his love for miracles and blessings … in his unique way.

Oscar was one of the millions of “lepers” shunned by Nazi Germany. The only “affliction” they had was that they were Jews, Romani, Communists, Disabled, Homosexual, or any other … other. A NAZI controlled Europe cast these “Others” outside of their communities, sequestering them to ghettos, work camps, and death camps. Many survived this nightmare, yet so many more turned to ash or lay buried in unmarked mass graves strewn throughout Europe. Oscar survived, and I am blessed with his incredible friendship very late in his life. In conversations that have continued past the grave, he confirmed for me the really harsh undertone of this week’s Torah portion and the related Haftarah.

Last week, we learned about the skin affliction “Tza-arat.” Most Bibles translate it to mean “leprosy,” given the rough diagnosis provided for us in the text. While the language of the text specifically mentions skin diseases, commentators have always felt it appropriate to associate the disease with any social, physical, or emotional plague afflicting society. We know that society routinely casts those who suffer any such affliction from its midst. Only the High Priest can determine whether or not the afflicted person can return after a time of healing. This week, we learn that it is possible for a cast-off to return, but only with the Priest’s permission. The ritual of coming back is beyond degrading and includes a sin offering, as though, the one afflicted did something to deserve getting ill. Actually, the Priest adorns the “healed” one’s ears with the blood and oil of the sin offering. For those Jews who did try to return to their homes after the Shoah, this was the best for which they could have hoped.

The Haftarah (portion from the Prophetic books associated with each week’s Torah portion) tells the story of four “cast-offs” so shunned by society that they thought to defect and join the Arameans. Lest we want to accept the Torah as literal truth, God empowers these four to not only drive off the entire Aramean army but to bring food back to a starved Jerusalem. The biting social commentary screams off the page, “We feel free to dispose of people freely, but even the weakest amongst us has incredible value … no one is expendable.” 

Oscar related more stories than I can recall of how his family, his neighbors, his community, our people, all of the others not “Aryan” were freely cast aside. We then shared our mutual stories of the many who had been cast off, have gone on to do the greatest work in medicine, technology, and for peace.

The world has always lost when some feel such supremacy over others that the “others” become expendable at best and shunned at worst … and it happens throughout history. My greatest fears are that I see it playing out today, in the land of freedom and opportunity. The rhetoric from the political world, and worse from the religious world screams, “LEPER, LEPER! GO AWAY!” The only affliction that the shunned has is looking, loving, praying, and believing in ways different than the one screaming. For me, this week’s portion is not simply an ugly piece of our Biblical story. These are words of prophecy. Our world can never heal until we see that the affliction of bigotry is the problem–the blessing of authentic diversity is the gift. Oscar Haber, thanks for continuing to share. Shabbat Shalom.