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You are here: services - Sermon on Tazria Metzora, 24th April 2015/6th Iyar 5775

Sermon given by Rabbi Amanda Golby in Hakol Olin, Shabbat Tazria Metzora, 24th April 2015/6th Iyar 5775

At least this year Tazria and Metzora are read together, which certainly makes it easier for those who have to give divrei Torah, though harder work for those leyning.

I came to Shachrit on Thursday morning, not a day when I normally go, because of a baby naming. On a weekday, the leyning is followed from the Siddur, and there is no translation. However I felt it fortunate that we had a special portion for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which included the words, ‘and God shall bless the issue of your body...’, and not the opening section of Tazria, speaking about ritual purification after childbirth though there could have been a special significance to that.

However these portions are part of our cycle of readings, and we need to try to understand them. Our parshiot  this Shabbat are concerned with ritual purification, with tzara’at, that which is sometimes termed leprosy, but in reality covers many skin diseases, and also if there is an outbreak, perhaps of wet  or dry rot, within houses. Clearly one of the functions of the priest was to be a surveyor. Tazria deals essentially with determining if an individual or object is ritually impure, and Metzora describes the purification rituals.

The rabbis made a connection between the Hebrew expression for slander or gossip, (motzi shem ra) and the word metzora, leprosy, and it is worth looking at this again this year.

I find it very difficult when some people ascribe psychological causes to almost every physical illness. Nevertheless there can often be a psychological component. And the rabbis readily made the link between whatever skin disease ‘metzora’ was, and inappropriate speech. In some ways we may find this difficult, but there is no doubting the real harm that can be caused by gossip, by slander, and sometimes even by speaking the truth, but in an inappropriate context, where perhaps there is no need for everything about a person to be know. And yet we can all be tempted, and sometimes even something said in totally innocence can cause great distress.

Judaism has a huge volume of literature about ‘lashon hara’, literally, ‘the evil tongue’, precisely because it is so tempting, so easy to do, yet it can be the cause of so much harm. And while it seems to have been a problem throughout time, it seems much more so in our world of social media. The wartime slogan ‘careless words cost lives’, had its particular context, but it remains true in a much wider setting.

I remember when I was a full-time congregational rabbi waking one Sunday morning to hear as the first item on the news, that a pathologist had been suspended accused of selling body parts, and being totally shocked to hear it was a congregant of mine. The family went through very great distress, until, eventually, the person who had made the allegation, a hospital porter, with a grudge against the hospital, but not against my congregant, confessed to having ‘invented’ charges in the hope of financial reward. Thankfully their ordeal was at one level short-lived,   but it did much harm, and undoubtedly some scars remain. An apology never receives the same amount of publicity, and some damage is always done. However something such as this is an extreme case, which, thankfully, is not the experience of most of us, but we can all think of occasions when we have perhaps said something we should not have, or listened to something it would have been better not to have heard. In the words of Maimonides: ‘Evil talk kills three people: the one who says it, the one who listens, and the subject’. And kill is an extremely strong word.

We also know the trouble that may be caused in families and the friendships that may be broken up by inappropriate words. So we have much to think about with regard to words, and, of course, we are in the middle of an election campaign.

Yes, we expect a certain amount of ‘hype’, and it is difficult not to be somewhat cynical about amazing things that are being promised every day. But there is also something separate about looking for ‘dirt’ in candidates’ backgrounds, and again determining what is appropriate to say and publish, what is not. And perhaps some things have been learned as a result of the consequences of phone hacking, the Leveson enquiry, but it is something about which there is a need constantly to be vigilant. 

And back to our text. Individuals affected with ‘leprosy’ and those who for other reasons were considered ritually impure, were isolated from the rest of their community,  put ‘outside the camp’  so that their ‘impurity’ would not spread. After a certain length of time, they would be readmitted ‘to the camp’, though normally there was the need to conclude the period of being ‘outside the camp’ with a sacrifice.

Sometimes there is the need for someone with an illness to be isolated, for their own protection and/or that of the wider community. Over the last few months we have become familiar with the need, for example, to keep those suffering from ebola separate, and, whereas now it seems very common to hold ‘parties’ to try to expose children to infectious illnesses, certainly there used to be a period of being kept separate.

However these very sound precautions, and 2015 has forcefully reminded us how very necessary they can be, have also had some unfortunate consequences. It has sometimes led to those with profound physical or emotional difficulties being isolated, being kept out of the camp, often in inappropriate institutions, and while this is being remedied in our rather more inclusive time, it remains a struggle. Clearly there does need to be special care for those with severe mental-health problems, some children with special needs can greatly benefit from being at school with so-called ‘ordinary’ children, provided they are given some help, but for some it is too much of a struggle, and it can be difficult to work out what is right for whom.

I have been very impressed by a recent book, ‘Maps and Meaning: levitical modes for contemporary care’ by Rabbis Nancy Wiener and Jo Hirschmann, incidentally with a foreword by Professor Claudia Setzer who regularly joined us in Hakol Olin when in London on sabbatical during the last academic year. It looks at the biblical model of being ‘outside the camp’, and through a multi-disciplinary approach, considers the different ways in which individuals move ‘in and out’ the camp in contemporary society. For example, someone who is very much a carer, can experience life very differently when he or she becomes the patient, and has to withdraw for a while. The authors consider how the texts can help soldiers returning after traumatic service when they have seen terrible things, which are not shared with those around them, and there are other examples.

I quote from Rabbi Nancy Wiener in a commentary specifically on our portions, and not from the book itself:
‘What a remarkable model our ancestors provide for us. The community is comprised of all its individual members. The life of the community is compromised when someone is outside the camp, when someone is on the margin. Forward movement is impossible for everyone as long as one individual is outside the camp...’

This portion reminds us of essential questions we must ask ourselves as individuals and as a community: Is the progress we perceive real if it is predicated on removing individuals from our midst? Are we truly moving forward if we can walk past those along the wayside and not extend a hand to them? Are we able to act so callously because we believe they are radically different from us? Our efforts towards inclusion are a reflection of our ongoing commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the less than perfect world that is ours. We are responsible for affirming that those who stand on the margins of our society are important members of it. We are responsible for declaring their readiness to be brought back into the camp.’

And it is so much harder for us than for our biblical ancestors. The kohanim had their precise instructions. There were exact formulae for re-entry. It is not like that for us. However rather than regard Tazria Metzora as something to be rushed through, as just applying to the ancients, we can make it apply to us.  We must remember that the rabbis linked ‘leprosy’ with lashon hara, and intensify our efforts to be careful about our words, and we can also learn from this new view of what it means to be inside and outside of the camp, and realistically, each of us sometimes feels on the inside, sometimes on the outside, for a range of reasons.  Nancy Weiner again:
‘Like the priest in this week’s portion, each of us can be the embodiment of holiness. We can move from within the community of which we are a part and reach to those on the periphery’, and indeed we know there are times when we may need others to bring us in. ‘Like our ancestors in the desert, we must remember and be responsible for reminding others that none of us makes progress unless all of us participate, unless all of us matter’, and we must be conscious of this in our speech and in our actions.

Ken yehi ratson May this be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.