Sunday, April 11, 2010

Who's worth caring about? / Tazria-Metzora & Yom HaShoah

Who should we care about – only the people we know (and not even all of them) or everyone everywhere? That is the question lying behind this week’s recondite double portion, Tazria and Metzora.

People often wriggle with discomfort at the detailed description of tzara’at, erroneous translated “leprosy” but actually an umbrella term covering a wide array of skin diseases that affect people, their clothing, and their homes.
When a person (adam) has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus 13:2)
The use of the term adam (“person”) here is curious. Torah would usually use ish (“man” or “person”). What is the difference? The plural of ish is anashim and connotes the Jewish people, but adam implies both singular and plural; kol adam means “all humanity.”

The plague of tzara’at renders a person an outsider, a pariah for a time. The metzorah (the person afflicted with tzara’at) must move outside the camp because he is ritually impure while the skin affliction is active. It is an experience of exile, banishment, expulsion, ostracism.

Our society is brimming with people who experience a sense of Otherness in our midst: the homeless, those who lack adequate resources for food and medical care, those who are unemployed or underemployed, undocumented immigrants. Torah provided a safety net that many in our society lack. Priests would check on the metzora weekly, bringing comfort and sustenance. When the metzora was healed, he was welcomed back into the embrace of the community with a purification ritual.

Perhaps Torah uses adam rather than ish to remind us of the importance of seeing ourselves connected not only to those we know and love, or those who live in our neighborhood or subscribe to the same religious tradition, but to all those around us, as far as we are capable of spreading a net of caring. That’s a tall order, to be sure.

There is a disagreement in the Jerusalem Talmud between R. Akiba and and Ben Azzai that echoes the distinction between ish and adam:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiba says: This is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of man (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle of the Torah. (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4)
For Rabbi Akiba, love and loyalty are the overriding obligation of Torah, the force that transform us and binds us to one another. But we can only achieve that with our “neighbor” – with those close enough to use that we have something important in common. Ben Azzai, however, believes that the highest principle of Torah is to recognize in a meaningful way the humanity of everyone on earth. He chooses a verse from Genesis, chapter 5, before there were Jews, when there was only undifferentiated humanity. Ben Azzai dramatically broadens the scope of those we are to care about. He wants us to embrace all humanity, just as God does.

Numbers 12:15 recounts that when Miriam was afflicted with tzara’at, she was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. They waited for her. The Babylonian Talmud expands on this story by telling us in Sotah 9b that the Israelites waited for Miriam because she had once waited for Moses by the Nile River (Exodus 2:4). Her act of love and loyalty toward her infant brother was repaid by the Israelites’ love and loyalty many years later. But perhaps what we learn is that narrow circle of caring can be enlarged from the model we learn in our nuclear families to include many others: the Israelites in the wilderness numbered well over two million people. They could not all have known Miriam personally, yet they had learned to care about the Other.

Who do you include in your circle of caring? Who else can you include in that circle? How far can you enlarge the circle?

I write this on Yom HaShoah, a day devoted to recalling the darkness chapter in our history, indeed in the history of human kind. What bigger message is there in the Holocaust than the danger implicit in treating anyone, or any group, as "Other?"

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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