Blog: April 2006

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


This week's double portion describes the affliction of tzara'at, a kind of leprosy, and how the community is to respond. If a person suspects he has this condition, he must go to the kohein for diagnosis. If the kohein diagnoses tzara'at, he sends the person into quarantine for a week, returns to check his condition, and if necessary continues the quarantine until the person is ready to return to the community.

The time spent in quarantine allows the person to reflect on his deeds and seek forgiveness from God. Tzara'at is not a medical condition; it is of divine origin, an outward consequence of sin, and it must be removed by God. The whole process of interacting with the kohein and going into quarantine is meant to address the sin that led to the problem in the first place.

This quarantine isn't the exile we sometimes imagine. We've all seen movies or other depictions where an obviously-sick leper walks through the streets shouting "unclean, unclean" and people run away from him or drive him out of town. This is not the interpretation of the rabbis; the talmud says that one reason for announcing the condition is so that the community will pray for the person's recovery. While the afflicted person is isolated physically, he is not to be isolated in the hearts and minds of the community. The quarantine is to facilitate teshuva; it is not a shunning. When the metzora, the afflicted person, returns to the community, the event is over. We see this when it happens to Miriam; she goes out of the camp, is healed, and returns to the community, and we hear no more about it.

Tzara'at does not affect us today, but other problems do and we are sometimes all too ready to exile people who make mistakes or don't blend in. Maybe we hold grudges long past the time when a person has corrected his errors. Maybe we judge the homeless person who approaches us on the street, thinking he brought it on himself. Maybe we avoid the socially-awkward person at the social event, thinking that he needs to try harder.

By doing so, we contribute to isolation much worse than what's described in the parsha. Unlike with tzara'at, this quarantine doesn't end. We might not isolate people physically, but doing it in our hearts, sending someone into a spiritual quarantine, is no better.

It can be hard to reach out to people; we don't know how they'll react or if they'll welcome help. Sometimes a person wants, and needs, to be left alone. But we don't bear the entire burden here; we can take our cues from the parsha:

The metzora, not the community, takes responsibility for the problem; he, not the community, initiates the diagnosis. The kohein does not cut him off; he checks in on the metzora periodically to see if his condition has changed, but the metzora himself has to address the problem. The community, for its part, prays for the metzora and welcomes him when he is ready to join the community. Once he returns, the matter is closed.

We are not responsible for solving other people's problems, but neither can we ignore people. May we have the strength to care, to keep others in our hearts, and to allow them to move on and become active parts of our community. And when we suffer from some affliction, may we have the strength to recognize it, spend the time to work on it, and ask the community for support.

Shabbat HaGadol

This week's parsha describes the investiture of Aharon and his sons as Israel's first priests. The torah describes, in some detail, the ritual garments and how Moshe placed each one on each priest.

The book of Exodus gave us a detailed description of the mishkan, its furnishings and utensils, and the garments that we now see being used. We might wonder at the level of detail -- does God need all of this? No, we generally answer, the mishkan is for Israel, not for God.

So, too, these priestly garments are for Israel more than for God. But I think there is another layer; in addition to being for the people, the garments are for the priests themselves. They mark a change of status, from ordinary Israelites to leaders responsible for maintaining Israel's relationship with God. The man who built a physical object to worship, the golden calf, might need a physical, tangible connection to God.

Ritual objects are not just for the priests and ancient Israel. We relate to God through physical objects too; for example, many of us wear talitot not because we feel commanded but because they help us focus on God. A kippah helps us remember the God who is above us. A piece of jewelry reminds us continually that we are Jews. We use many such items to connect to God.

But the priestly garments were not just connections to God. The parsha describes an investiture in which the garments play a central role; donning the garments and going through the ritual transforms Aharon and his sons into priests, not just in the eyes of the people but in their own eyes as well. Our own ritual garments can also have a transformative effect, changing us internally, if we let them.

This week we will all gather to retell the story of our people's transformation from slaves to free people. We are to see ourselves in the story; this is about us, not them. We are to experience this transformation from slavery to freedom, as a people and individually.

Several years ago I had a particularly powerful Pesach experience. I was then a gentile who had been to a few seders with a (by then ex-) boyfriend, and on the afternoon before the first seder, I realized that I missed not having a place to go. I mustered some courage and schmoozed my way into a Hillel seder -- and found a connection there. It couldn't be to the people; I'd never seen any of them before. I went home more than a little confused, and the next day I began to read books about Judaism. At Shavuot I was surprised to see that I counted myself among the "we" who stood at Sinai. Without seeking it out, I had undergone a transformation.

Pesach is a ritual designed to help us connect with God and with our history. We, not they, came out of Egypt; we, not they, stood at Sinai and entered a covenant with God. If we take the time to engage with the ritual, we can transform ourselves to be more attuned to God's call. The reading of the haggadah, bubbe's seder plate, zayde's kiddush cup -- all are ritual "garments" that can help us in that transformation.

Our connection with God does not end with the eating of the afikoman. Our challenge is not only to allow ourselves to be transformed, but to then carry that forward into the days, weeks, and months that follow. Every time we put on a talit or kippah or use some other ritual object, we should strive to remember why we're doing all of this. When Aharon and his sons put on their priestly garments it was for a specific purpose; may we, too, remember the specific purposes behind our rituals.

I felt my actual delivery was a little rough -- too much "obviously reading from script" and not enough eye contact, etc -- but I got a lot more compliments on this one than the last few. Hmm. (Ok, the conclusion that I can write better than I can speak is obvious but not terribly helpful.)

One person asked me if I intended to alude to the seder's rasha, the wicked child who asks "what is this to you" (instead of "to us"). No, that hadn't occurred to me at all, but what an excellent suggestion. If I ever have occasion to revise and reuse this, I'll work that in.