Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – M’tzora

Last week, we read about how to tell if someone bears a designated “skin disease.” This week, we learn the rules and processes as part of the afflicted person’s purification. Often last week’s portion and this one are joined in one week. You get the diagnosis and the purification all in one week. When, however, it happens that the two separate (as with this year), we can’t help but pay attention to the reason that the sages declared them to be distinctly unique Torah portions.

I read the opening words of this week’s text and realized it opens with odd language. “Zot ti’h’yeh Torat metzorah – This is the Torah of the affliction.” Despite what the non-Jewish world thinks, “Torah” does not mean law. It means enlightenment or teaching. The verse maintains that the matter of purification is not legal or static. Purification must be handled on a case by case basis for each of us learns, heals, and responds in unique ways.

As a metaphor, the metzorah (afflicted person) is one seen as outside of normative society. Effectively, we think about people who live as racial minorities, with diverse gender orientations, religions, disabilities, or any host of attributes that make us unique. I stand challenged with the whole episode speaking to how we oppress the afflicted. We spend a lot of energy judging the afflicted one infectious. Last week, Torah gave us the rules for the color, style, and size of the white splotches of skin that serve as evidence of the affliction. This week, Torah offers the redeeming command instructing us to see the afflicted as a human whose potential makes them valuable to our society.

Ultimately, what becomes most important is our response to the affliction; or what we perceive to be an affliction. Last week, we got a normative societal response. We look at people who are different, and see them as the “other.” Often, people make presumptions about others based on their own cultural, spiritual, or religious myopia, long before they learn anything about each other. Face it; it takes a lot of effort to overcome our own stereotyping of others. We expect people with disabilities to experience limitations. Some people expect that people of other religions don’t authentically understand God. We see people different than ourselves as somehow afflicted in their divergence from our norm and our story.

How does the way in which people see the “other” make the “other” feel afflicted or cast out? What is it that we don’t understand? Since this portion is associated with “Torah”, we have an obligation to look past the lines of separation and presumption. Torah commands us to start with “human” and then realize that we all have blessings and limitations. Different is not a disability. Most often “different” affords me an opportunity to expand my horizons; helps me see the world through a broader lens.

Today, though, we commemorate the most horrible moment in United States history. On this day, in 1861, Americans proved that they were willing to kill their neighbors – even their own family members – over rights, entitlements, and disagreements. To preserve slavery, the rebel Confederacy opened an attack on Fort Sumter and launched the Civil War. Many of the northern states participated in slavery, but at some point, our government decided it was wrong; or better, realized that it was. The war over racism has not resolved and will not until people realize how much we don’t understand about each other, but the nightmare of this anniversary reminds us that our own ignorance as to each other’s blessing has and can drive us to horrific acts.

I had the blessing of teaching a diversity training session at a disabled artist school in Lexington. Each artist had a care-taker / companion. I was working on helping the companion help the student artist. The day developed in an amazing way. More than the companions learned about helping the artists; they learned how much the artists helped grow them. Each had stories about what he/she learned from their student artist that changed how he/she saw the world. Beyond empathy, each had a takeaway that opened doors to new experiences and awareness. One shared that he took up painting, amazed at what his student could create with only his toes.

In every case, when we stand with each other, we stand on holy ground. God made each of us, and While I don’t believe that God is omnipotent, I don’t believe that God makes mistakes. If there exists something or someone we don’t understand, it is our issue, not God’s or the other person or object. We have so much to learn from each other. This engagement and our commitment to growth is Torah … all of it. Shabbat Shalom.