You Shall Pursue

April 13, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Metzorah

Filed under: Uncategorized — marleyweiner @ 1:00 pm

One morning, you awake to find a patch of white flaky skin on the back of a hand. You scratch. It doesn’t come off. You scratch a little bit more. It still doesn’t come off. You start to panic. You wake up your spouse, who goes to get the local priest. He comes into your home, takes a good long look at your hand, and says one word “tsara’at,” skin disease. Wordlessly, fearfully, you pack your things, move out of the house, and go to the colony of the afflicted outside of the camp. You will wait there, praying and meditating, hoping to be healed. The skin goes from white and itchy to dull pink and sore, like the aftereffects of a wound, and then it is healed. The priest, who is on his daily rounds, comes and checks your hand. He declares you clean. You joyfully send word to your family, “prepare the sacrifices; I’m coming home.”

The story I just told you is the beginning of Parshat M’tzora, which deals with the sacrifices needed to purify people with skin disease. It’s one of the more perplexing parshayot in the Bible, and one that is more challenging to modern audiences. Which is part of the reason why I love it.

But why do I love it? Why do I have such a passion for a story that seems so strange, whose values seem so different from ours, a story that advocates for isolating people and turning them out of their homes because of a skin disease? One of my former teachers at JTS, Rabbi Neil Gillman, helps me to answer this question in his book Sacred Fragments. In this book, he claims that the Torah is the sign of God’s love for us. And so, how might we approach Torah as part of a loving relationship? Part of a loving relationship is seeing the whole person, flaws and strengths and beauty and ugliness, and really and truly accepting a person for who and what they are. Similarly, we need not agree with the whole Torah (and indeed there are plenty of parts that I find confusing or downright distasteful) but it is our duty to engage. For us, saying “well that is irrelevant” or “that story didn’t really happen” or “how barbaric!” must be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. Because when we love something, or someone, we strive to understand it completely.

How might we understand Metzorah, the story of purification, completely? There are many ways of understanding a text completely, so that it speaks to us today. We might see the purification rituals as a metaphor for the need to mark moments of transition in our lives. The text speaks of taking a period of impurity after giving birth to a child. What if we saw that as a metaphor for recognizing the danger and transformation in certain moments, such as the death of a loved one, or recovering from a long illness, or taking a transformative trip, and recognizing that moment with a period of separation?

We might try another metaphor and compare impurity to gossip, which spreads its destruction throughout communities and must be carefully contained to avoid contamination. We could use this story, as rabbis have done for hundreds of years, to teach ourselves about the importance of proper speech and behavior, and the potentially destructive things that happen when we do not. No matter how we choose to interpret this story, there are a variety of ways to make it relevant to our lives, to teach us something about how to live in the world.

And that’s just for Metzorah, a portion about skin diseases. Think of how many more stories, questions, and interpretations might be contained within the rest of the Torah! Certainly enough to keep Jews entertained, and arguing, for another 2500 years. Because every generation creates the Torah anew. Every generation, and every person within every generation, must find the thread of Torah that calls to them and make it their own. There is a teaching that each of us must feel that we stood at Sinai, and received the law. We have as much right to claim and interpret this text as our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

There are many people here today who have just become, or who are about to become, B’nei Mitzvah. Some of you are about to turn thirteen, and others became adult B’nei Mitzvah in recent years. At thirteen, we take on the yoke of Torah. And that is not just about coming into greater responsibility as a young adult. It is also about taking one’s place in the world as a Jew. But our religious path lasts for the rest of our lives. Those in the congregation for whom Bar or Bat Mitzvah was many decades ago have an equally strong obligation to learn, to read, to question, to fall in love with the text.

And so I encourage you all to engage in some way with our tradition. Maybe go see the new Noah movie, and then please do come discuss it with me; I’m really interested to see whether or not it will be good. Maybe check out the excellent new miniseries “the Story of the Jews” on PBS. Maybe come and check out Nosh and Drash, our adult Torah study group, which meets at 9AM on Saturdays right before services and to which people of all ages are welcome, including those of you who are newly post B’nei Mitzvah. Or maybe go and check out an old favorite book, like the Red Tent. Find something that will make the text sing for you. Engage with it. Ask questions. Get emotional. Fall in love a little bit.

Because as Jews, we are obligated to love Torah. The Torah is our heritage and our strength, and in its lessons we find the foundation of our lives. As we say in our prayers at the end of the Torah service, “it is a tree of life.” Like a tree, it is ever growing, ever changing, shedding and sprouting new leaves, but also like a tree, its trunk and its roots stand firm, anchoring us into the earth and into our past.

I would like to leave you with one final thought from the great Medieval Rabbi the Ramban. According to the Ramban, tsa’arat, the disease from Tazria and Metzora, is an affliction of spiritual shortfall, and the way to purify oneself is through the use of two birds, one symbolizing a life of good deeds and the other representing the death that comes through evil. The purification process teaches us that we always have the power to choose, to connect with the things that bring life meaning. And as each of we go about choosing every day, I hope that we will find in Torah a guide that will make our steps that much easier.

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