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

I remember my late Grandma Bessie. We used to call her “Hurricane Bess.” She was short and round and spoke in ways that could make a sailor blush – and she was an incredible grandma. What Yiddish I know – I learned from her. I can’t use any of it in public. She had a hard life early on. She would tell us stories of growing up in a meager home and then trying to raise children in the Brooklyn ghetto during the Depression. I first learned the word “tzooris” from her. Tzooris means troubles: big troubles. She recounted the “good old days” that molded her into the model citizen she became. She was good-natured about it, but salty, very salty.

Every year, as we approach this week’s Torah portion, Tazria – Metzorah, I think of Bess. The portion teaches us about the affliction tzara-at. We commonly translate the word as “leprosy,” but only because Torah describes this affliction as a scaly skin disease. Some think it might have been eczema or psoriasis. At the same time, the majority of tradition understands the illness to be a tangible manifestation of some spiritual disease, a plague that separates the afflicted from society.

Certainly, during times such as the one we currently experience, one can point to the very real plagues that separate society. Absent the opportunities to read it more literally, tradition usually looks at this affliction as being one of character more than biology. Specifically, many people argue that this affliction is the result of one’s negative behaviors.

Historically, scared people do this. It is easy to point fingers and work to make other people afraid. People blamed victims on 9/11 for immoral behavior. God used the Saudi terrorists to smite the impure. Some ultra-orthodox Jews blamed liberal Jews for the Holocaust, arguing that a diminished ritual practice angered God. My grandmother understood that tzara-at – tzooris happens. It is part of the human condition. Indeed, we bring some of it upon ourselves. When we speak or misbehave, we do invite tzooris, but she would never blame everyone else for the life-challenges she experienced. She did acknowledge that most bad things happen from people too afraid to live.

Fear, ignorance, and arrogance are closely tied triplets. In and of themselves, any one of them is human. When we become so consumed in our fear that we willfully shun learning, or become arrogant in our myopia; our default behavior roots in moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical violence.

The tzara-at of COVID-19 has us quarantined. We have politicians making medical statements, people claiming to be infected intentionally coughing and spitting on random victims, and the anger people display in fear, or exhaustive anxiety is a higher risk to our society than the virus itself. The allegations of who brought the virus – that God willed it because of certain people’s behavior – are untenable. In posturing, as many are, we diminish the people God sent who are trying to protect us and care for us. Healthcare workers cannot go home for fear of exposing their families. Custodial and maintenance staffs of hospitals have to clean up the impact of this disease. People continue to provide for our needs in the real world. The impoverished (new and pre-existent) still receive shelter and life’s essentials. Every selfish and fear-based violent act diminishes their heroism. They have lots of tzooris, too. And yet, they keep showing up.

At the risk of the vulgar: feces occurs. It happens because we abuse the earth and each other. Certainly! If, however, you want to know where God is, to paraphrase scripture (I Kings 19:12-13), God was not in the winds, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah heard God in the still small voice – the kol d’mama. The still small voice causes those who pay attention to leave their comfort zones and go to help people who are in need.

What I see is that, even amongst the fear and power mongers, there are tons of people hearing and heeding God’s call to serve. Those who get in the way, however, mush they attend at houses of worship, missed God’s call. Pray with me by ending the rhetoric and taking care of all who are in need. It is time to listen and serve … and grow and learn … especially when it expands our own comfort zones. Bess dedicated a lot of time to her synagogue in California. She would tell you to get moving. Many years after she has left this earth, I affirm every day; I love my grandma. Shabbat Shalom.