Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Tazria

I love my faith tradition! Even while the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is nothing new under the Sun (1:9), we also know that each year, as we read the “same old” Torah, it has to speak with a brand spanking new voice. Religious people get lazy. We read a text and walk away with an inferred, implied, or otherwise gleaned message, and that becomes the eternal purpose and meaning of that text. Tradition, though, requires us to understand the Torah as a living document; if it only teaches yesterday’s lessons, then we stagnate in faith. We know that we have to study what has been not to get locked into its import, rather to propel us into a deeper engagement.

This week’s Torah portion is all about childbirth and skin afflictions. Of course, we speak about it in metaphor. The sages have used this portion to speak to the Pandemics that have threatened entire communities. They have also used it to speak about the plague of evil speech. Most often, commentators use it to speak about some ill plaguing society, wanting to point out how destructive we can be or the amount of destruction we experience in the face of these plagues.

When someone contracts the skin disease, the Priest has to make a judgment call. If the irritation looks in a certain manner, the Priest has to send the afflicted person from camp to keep anyone else from being contaminated. Every Bible translates the word “Tza-a-rat” as leprosy. If and when the affliction seems to subside, the people welcome the individual back into camp. Depending on how bad the affliction is the house needs to be scrubbed clean or burned to the ground. The Priest holds life in the balance of his discretion. We presume that the Priest will act justly in rendering decisions — end of the story.

What if, however, we looked at this text from a different perspective? The system is in place to take care of keeping the afflicted from infecting the community, but no text seeks to determine from where the affliction spawned? We condemn evil speech. We commit to checking up on the one afflicted outside of camp. We commit to cleaning or burning the home to rid it of the disease. We commit to judging people because they are sick. What caused the affliction to grow? From where did it come?

How can we eradicate an illness without knowing how and why it happens? So this year, I think about the “others” amongst us — the people outside of camp. The people who we the Priests in charge keep or put outside of camp. The people kept outside of camp, even as we built our community, built our Tabernacle, and built our celebrations. The people kept outside of camp as we commemorated the birth of our community and our peoplehood. The people who, only centuries later were told to pick up their own bootstraps, come in and try to catch up.

The first African slaves came to the Americas in 1619. The United States of America became a nation 157 years later. It took another 87 years for Black Africans to receive emancipation from slavery. 101 years later, the first civil rights acts passed in Congress, outlawing racial discrimination and legally ending Jim Crow racial prejudice, bigotry and violence.

For only 55 of our nation’s 400 years existence has a Black person had the right not to be legally segregated, beaten, or lynched because of his race. How can one argue that a nation (encampment) created with a built-in 345-year intolerance and disdain for Black people has no racial problems today? How can anyone claim that we do not live in a racially discriminatory system? And yet, we leave the Priest, who inherited the privilege of growing up in the freedom in the camp, empowered to decide the rights of those who never tasted it. How did the leper of Torah contract leprosy? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe, his skin color disqualified him from the blessings of being in camp. How can we leave the one who outlawed the dignity of a person’s existence in control of determining the dignity and value of his future? It is time for prayer; a prayer that forces people to do real teshuvah – turning and rethinking.

If people matter, then all people matter, If the system is inequitable, it is inequitable for everyone. If we allow a hole in one corner of our rowboat to go uncared for, the entire boat must eventually sink. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us that Racism is “an eye disease, a cancer of the soul. Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” We have a lot of work to do. We are all in this together. May our Shabbat rest give us the strength and vision to make peace real. Shabbat Shalom.