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

I was speaking to my mom who was telling me of her last Dr’s. visit. She had a pretty clean bill of health for a woman who has been through a great many challenges in life. I know the many challenges that she faces. Still, though, I always get to hear about the luncheons she attends, the classes she takes, and the excitement at the thought of her next visit with my sisters or me. I was speaking to her as I was leaving a hospital after a visiting a couple whose babies are facing real challenges trying to acculturate to life outside of the womb. The parents lovingly hold each other and engage the nurses in appreciation. There is incredible joy in their voices as they speak of their twins, even while I know that life still hangs in the balance. I was on my way to check on a dear friend who was bed ridden, waiting for some life resolution. We all knew that his earthly demise was near, yet his spirit stayed strong. He kept telling me how beautiful the spring is here at the shore, wanting updates on our Shabbat morning study group so that he did not miss the study highlights. I stand in awe of the tenacity of folks who face challenges head on and never give up seeking and engaging opportunities for blessings and celebration in between the ongoing recurring painful episodes that seem overwhelming.

I know the old saying that God never gives us more than we can handle. I have had my moments of exemplary strength in times of crisis. Still, though, some days I am afraid of my own shadow. I know that I am not alone in this experience. I know that many of us find ourselves walking through both the world of strength and the world of intense fear and pain. I know that we are strongest when strenuously tested. Still, though, I see people who never feel that they can measure up. I work with teens who self-mutilate. Suicide and acts of terror to others seem to proliferate. The news shares details of the nightmarish “personal interest” stories as if they were as common as sharing brownie recipes. There is horrific pain in this world, but it has become so common-place that we grow numb to the news of pain. I look at the lives that lay in ruin and try to figure out why, for some, intense trials bring out the best in us while for others they leave us devastated.

There is a stark difference in the world view of those who stand and face trauma in one way versus those who run to hide: wounded and afraid. The difference lies in how much one experiences love. I am not speaking just in terms of erotic or even filial love. Rather, I am speaking of self-love and respect that keeps us keenly aware that we have value, and the fight is worth fighting as much as the love is worth sharing. When we are emotionally secure, we can face anything.

Often, though, we need each other to experience this love. It is so easy to get lost in our own pain. There are certainly people who have an innate sense of inner security, but most of us need those who love us to remind us that we have value. Without these arms that hold us, we struggle to maintain some perspective as to trials large and small and lose all perspective as to the value of blessings in our life.

So, I read this week’s Torah portion that focuses on dealing with a tzara-at; a mystical affliction that destroys lives, communities, and even the physical structures in which afflicted people live. Unfortunately, traditional translations render this word “leprosy,” but those who speak Yiddish know that the word “tzuris” (same word) means “gnawing at you problems.” Rabbis have used this metaphor to speak out against AIDS, evil speech (lashon harah), and a host of social and medical maladies. In each case, we put an emphasis on the afflicted one, and what he/she may have done to find himself/herself stuck in the affliction. Most people who suffer did nothing to “deserve” their affliction. Decreeing that God punishes people this way belies every notion of a loving and benevolent “Divine Parent.” Many have used this text as a metaphor for the hurricane that no one caused, but which left communities devastated in its wake. There is not a lot out there that yields “feel good” messages from this portion.

In reading through, I got to the part where the High Priest has to travel around the outskirts of town to inspect all afflicted/infected folks. They had to be thrown from camp until they healed. The High Priest made the call as to when someone could come back if ever. I always found this a little pretentious, and a door opening for abuse of power. As I spoke about this portion with our temple religious school, it hit me that we are a kingdom of High Priests. The Torah teaches that the whole world of faith is a “mamlekhet kohanim – a nation of High Priests.” Each of us has the authority and obligation to hold each other’s life in the balance. Where people are so afflicted that they withdraw or are thrown from society, we each have the priestly power to leave them exiled or bring them back. “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh – all faithful folks are responsible for each other.” Where people cannot see past their pain, how much of their tzara-at stems from the fact that we cannot see past their pain, either? The priest had to go to the people afflicted, and not wait for them to come back. Without the priest’s permission, they can never come back.

We possess incredible power to change lives in this world. Most of what we do is complain about the people we do not want to help heal, or worse still, in shunning them, we only increase their exile and their affliction. In 1965, Burt Bacharach wrote the song, “What The World Needs Now?” the answer he provided: “Love sweet love.” It has been 50 years since the song topped the charts. Is it time that we pay attention? Shabbat shalom.