By Zachary Scott Roe
This past Shabbat, my friend and fellow congregant Zach Roe delivered the d’var Torah (words of Torah) at our synagogue--Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA. He so moved me that I asked whether I might share his sermon as an essay on my blog, and with his consent it appears below (only the second time I’ve published a guest author). The bracketed words are mine, intended to help translate some of the terms for readers who may not recognize them. I also added the title.
Happy birthday, Zach!
-Dina Wolfman Baker
Ben Bag Bag, a disciple of Hillel the Elder, once wrote regarding the Torah, “turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.” And Ben Bag Bag was right; the Torah has everything in it. Wrestling with angels, fire from the heavens, crossing through the sea on dry land. Lots of exciting stuff. Like today’s parsha [weekly reading], Metzorah, where we have the exciting story of … skin disease. While this may not make a top ten list of favorite or most exciting parshot, there are some very important lessons we can glean from these passages and the commentary around them.
So, metzorah is a word that refers to somebody with tzara’at. Often, tzara’at gets translated as leprosy, but that’s not actually what it is. The Torah refers to tzara’at as a “nega”, an affliction or plague. The people who develop it end up with patches of bright white skin and hair. A Kohen [priest] has to check the patches and declare the person to be ta’amei (unclean). If determined to be a metzorah, the person has to leave the community. Once healed, an offering had to be made that involved taking two birds, killing one, draining the slaughtered bird’s blood into a container of clear water, and dipping the other bird, the cedar, the hyssop, and the string into the container.
I’m sure by now you’ve all figured out the profound implications this has in our modern life, but, just in case you haven’t, let’s dig deeper into what our sages have to say about this text.
When the gemara [rabbinical commentary in the Talmud] discusses tzara’at and the halachot [commandments] regarding the metzorah, it is often discussed along with the Mourner and the Menudah (someone who is excommunicated). A menudah can wear tefillin [leather items one wears during prayer], but what about a metzorah or a mourner? A Mourner can’t say hello. What about a metzorah or a menudah? The three get grouped together when asking these questions. So what does the metzorah have in common with a mourner and a menudah?
A Metzorah develops pale white skin that looks like a corpse, and, also like a corpse, the metzorah is ta’amei (unclean) in the same way. If a metzorah is in a tent, then everything in the tent is considered unclean, just like a corpse. So, as a mourner deals with death, the metzorah deals with a form of almost living death. As a Menudah, once excommunicated, is cut off from the community, so, too, the metzorah is made to be separated from the community, at least until healed.
So now we know what it is, its physical effects, what needs to be done, etc. But the question that remains is, “how does one contract this disease?” And the sages have quite a bit to say on this, as well. The first thing to note is that they say that tzara’at is, in fact, a spiritual malady with physical ramifications. This isn’t a bug you pick up from someone. Instead, they say it is the result of grievous spiritual misconduct. And what is the misconduct that leads to this malady? Many different rabbis had their lists of various unseemly practices that would cause tzara’at. However, there a few thatshow up on most lists: lashon hara (evil/unkind speech), hotzaat shem ra (spreading a bad name, ie. Slander), and rechilut (gossip).
Important to note is that each of these acts can only happen within community. These aren’t personal shortcomings. And I think that’s the reason that the process to resolve tzara’at is so intense. Because one hasn’t just hurt themselves, they have, to lesser or greater degrees, broken the community.
Let us briefly return to the purification ritual for this malady. There are two birds, one slain and one dipped in the blood but eventually set free. There is water that becomes discolored by blood. There is blood placed on hyssop and wood. Maybe you’ve noticed already, but this ritual has quite a bit in common, symbolically speaking, with Pesach [the holiday of Passover].
One bird is slain. Could this represent the Egyptian firstborn? The word negah that I spoke of earlier that means affliction or plague is used only twice in the Torah: once when discussing tzara’at, and earlier in Sh’mot 11:1, which says "vayomer ad-nai al-Moshe, od nega echad avi al-Mitzraim,"—God said to Moshe one more plague I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. And that was the plague of the killing of the first born. Water filled with blood, as the Nile turned to blood. The second bird is dipped in the bloody water but is freed, as the Hebrew slaves were freed through waters that closed in over the Egyptian army. The hyssop and the cedar wood are dipped in the blood, as the wooden lentils of the homes were covered in blood by hyssop dipped in blood. This purification ritual is like a mini-Pesach.
It seems like the Torah is making a connection between Pesach and the purification of the metzorah. But what is the connection? I think the clue lies in understanding what happened on Pesach, because it was then that we became a nation. We went from simple individuals to having a dual identity as both individuals AND members of a wider nation, a people, a community. When we speak lashon hara or hotzaat shem ra or rechilut, when we use our words to harm, mistreat, and abuse the people within our community, we end up separating ourselves from that community. And the only way to return is to remember that moment in time when we became a people. To remember what unites us as Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. To work to rebuild our sense of communal identity.
If any of you have ever stepped into a synagogue, and I’m assuming you have as you’re currently in one, then you’ve most likely heard the common lament that goes something like, “We need to rescue the Jewish community! The Jewish community is shrinking and dying!” And I understand where those voices are coming from, I really do. But I can’t help but wonder, “If that is true, then why?” I think part of the problem is that so many of us have lost sight of that communal identity, start placing ourselves over the community, and brandish our tongues as a weapon against those who don’t follow our way of doing things. We say this person isn’t observant enough, this person is TOO observant, this person is in a gay, interracial, intercultural, interfaith marriage (not to be too specific), this person is a convert, this person looks differently, acts differently, thinks differently. And we aren’t pushing people away from Jewish community (because they’ll find it if they want it). Ultimately, what we’re doing is pushing ourselves away from the opportunity to have more meaningful connections with a wider and more diverse set of people and ideas within the Jewish community. And we end up hurting ourselves in the process, because we are not just individuals, we are part of a whole.
We have a tradition that every Jewish soul (present, future, and past) was present at Sinai to receive the Torah. And as we stood there to receive it, there were no qualifications given, no, “Accept my Torah, but only if you’re heterosexual, only if you’re a certain race, only if you marry a Jew, only if you’re born Jewish.” We are, all of us, the people of Israel. We are all Jews. We may be gay or straight, religious or secular, married within the tribe or not. We all bring our diverse backgrounds and experiences and traditions, and the Jewish community is richer for this.
As we get ready to celebrate Pesach next week, let’s all take time to think about the importance of community, both locally and as part of the Jewish people, and let’s always remember to use our words to build up our community and all around us, words that comfort and support and give life. Shabbat Shalom.