I remember in my childhood seeing people with abnormalities that we don’t see much of anymore. A cleft pallet or missing teeth were not uncommon. Once in a while I would see a cancer patient on the subway with a huge lip or a large growth extending out of his head. We don’t see much of these, thank Gd, any more. I guess we’ve figured out a way to either fix these problems or make those afflicted appear more “normal.”
There were those who suffered from polio and Spina Bifida that wore crutches on their arms or sat in wheel chairs. And then there were the “Thalidomide babies.” Thalidomide was a drug that was often prescribed during the late 1950s and early 1960s to pregnant women to combat morning sickness and to help them sleep—with catastrophic results. Approximately 10,000 children were born with severe malformations—like extremely short arms and hands.
I remember seeing these children as a teenager and I also remember how uncomfortable I felt every time—cringing and wanting to run away. These were the “untouchables,” the ones that were hard to be around. Today, thank Gd, society is more sensitive to those who don’t appear normal.
Today’s Torah portion similarly describes the disease of tzaraat, incorrectly translated as leprosy. It’s not a pleasant picture: rotting skin, wounds that ooze endlessly, tell-tale blemishes that leave others running for protection. Worst of all, we learn that the one who was afflicted with this strange malady could not just remain in quarantine at home, but became an outcast and was sent outside the camp. Living on the edge of society, he/she became untouchable until the disease subsided. And then, through an elaborate ritual of purification described in our parsha, the person was welcomed back into the community. I suspect, however, that he/she continued to be tainted for some time. “There he goes,” people might whisper, “You know, the one who was a metzora.”
As I pointed out last week, the sages explained this affliction by associating it with the sin of gossip or slander—saying that the word metzora was a contraction of the term, motzi ra, “one who gives a bad name.” But that, I imagine, may have only made it worse. Imagine becoming ill with a devastating disease and having people say, “Gd must be punishing you. What did you do or say to deserve this affliction?” The metzora, was both physically and emotionally an outcast.
This is beautifully brought home in today’s Haftorah. The city of Samaria in the upper kingdom of Israel was under siege. People were starving—some resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. But those who were metzora-im, who had this disease, were excluded from the city, living in a kind of no-man’s land between the city and the camp of the enemy army. They were lost, forgotten, unloved—shunned!
We no longer have this Biblical disease in our time. And a simple dose of penicillin or a topical treatment of certain ointments can treat most skin diseases. So what are we today to learn from the Bible’s account of this disease? 1st of all, although we don’t fear contracting a disease from speaking gossip or slander, we should remember that lashon hara still has devastating consequences. If Gd can’t show us that through this illness, He will find another way. We should be so careful—especially around Pesach when we’re in the midst of family and friends—not to gossip or ill of anyone. Believe me; it will make for a much happier and fulfilling Yom Tov.
As a timely aside, an egregious example of the devastating effects of lashon hara for the Jewish people can be seen in the increasing strength of the BDS—Boycott, Divest and Sanctions—movement against Israel. Just this month 3 major universities in Canada—perhaps Israel’s most supportive ally—have joined the movement. The lies and distortions that are coming out from the bastions of academia are astonishing. A 2013 BBC poll found that Israel is now competing with North Korea as the 3rd or 4th worst-perceived country in the world. Israeli firms are losing government bids in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland and even in the United States.
And now, as the peace talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and the PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu are falling apart, we can expect the anti-Israel movement to gain further momentum. We can only hope that just as the metzora suffered for his slander of others because he refused to see its devastating effects, those who slander Israel and the Jewish people will come to see the truth and refrain from such calumny.
The 2nd thing we must learn from the Torah’s account of the tzaraat disease is how to treat our outcasts—people who live on the edge of society in a kind of psychological no-man’s land. Rabbi Mark Greenspan postulates that it’s no accident that the Kohen, the highest ranking person in Jewish society, not only treated the leper, but was commanded to leave the camp and inspect the leper’s sores: It was not the job of the outcast to break down the gates to get back into society. It was the job of the Kohen to go out to the outcast and treat him with compassion and understanding. Why? So others would see this and say, “If the Kohen who must live by such stringent standards of purity—nevertheless must go out to the metzora—how much more so should I treat this unfortunate person with compassion and empathy.”
My friends, as we prepare for Passover, I think we should stop and consider who are the outcasts today. We begin the Seder by declaring: Kol dichvin yeytey v’yuchal, “All who are hungry come and eat. All who are needy come celebrate Passover with us.” But do we really mean it? There are people—because of circumstances beyond their control—who have not had the opportunity of a Jewish upbringing and education. They feel that they stand out, that they will be the only ones who don’t know what’s going on if they walk into a synagogue or come to a Seder. How do we make such people feel accepted?
There are people suffering with physical illnesses that are easy to diagnose but hard for us to confront. A man once said to me, “I don’t understand, rabbi, where did our friends go? When my wife was well, she had friends who stopped by, all the time. But when she became ill they disappeared.”
There are people who suffer from emotional illnesses, depression and personal problems. Do we go out to them, try to make them feel that they are not alone or do we ignore them? And there are people who are just a little strange, who don’t dress the right way, who have an odd look in their eyes, whose voice is a little too shrill or annoying. It’s easier to turn our back on them and push them out the gate than it is to include them in our lives.
Today there are so many Jewish singles that live alone and—because of life’s circumstances—don’t have a great circle of friends and community. They’re not outcasts, but I can tell you now that a good deal of them will be alone on Seder night because no one invited them to a Seder and they’re too embarrassed to ask.
Too often we invite mostly our family to the dinner table on Passover but ignore the rest of the world. Kol dichvin yeytey v’yuchal, “All who are hungry come and eat. All who are needy come celebrate Passover with us.” It’s no accident that the Torah singles out the metzora. Nothing was more frightening or repugnant in the ancient world than this strange disease. But the metzora had to be treated with compassion and reintegrated into the community in a meaningful way.
The image of the closed gate to the city in our Haftorah stands in stark contrast to the open door on Seder night. We must ask ourselves: who is outside and who are we prepared to let in? As we finish our final preparations for Passover I ask us all to make a personal inventory of the people in our lives? Do you know anyone who lacks a place to go for Seder? Why not reach out to them. You can’t imagine how easy it is to open the gate and let them in. And you can’t imagine what a difference it would make in their lives and in yours as well. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis