Monday, March 24, 2014

Hope and Love and Leprosy (portion Tazria)

A remarkable Talmudic tale recounts a mythical encounter between Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and the prophet Elijah.  Since Elijah is supposed to herald the arrival of the Messiah, Rabbi Joshua asked: “When will he come?”

Elijah replied: “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Just outside the city gates.”

“How will I recognize him?”

“He sits among the lepers.  The rest of them unbind all their bandages at the same time and then rebind them all together.  But the Messiah unbinds one at a time and then binds it again before treating the next, thinking, ‘Perhaps my time will come, and if so, I must not delay.’”

Rabbi Joshua went there, found the Messiah, and said, “Peace be to you, master and teacher.”

The Messiah answered: “Peace be to you, son of Levi.”

“When will you come, master?”

The Messiah replied, “Today.”

Later, Rabbi Joshua returned to Elijah, who asked, “What did he tell you?”

“He spoke falsely to me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “for he said he would come today, but he has not arrived.”

Elijah answered him: “This is what he told you—Today. . . if you will but hearken to God’s voice.”   (Tractate Sanhedrin 98a)

It is notable that in this story, the Messiah is portrayed as the ultimate outsider, poor and despised, sitting beyond the safety of the city gates.  Why does Talmud present our long-awaited Redeemer as a lowly leper?

Perhaps the Rabbis wanted a counter-balance to this week’s parshah and their own predominant line of commentary upon it.  Portion Tazria describes the skin affliction of tzara’at, commonly (mis)translated as leprosy; it prescribes that those who suffer from it be quarantined outside the camp.  Commentators saw tzara’at as the physical sign of a deeper spiritual malady.  They linked the disease to malicious speech, suggesting that the affliction was a kind of divine punishment for lashon ha-ra, the “evil tongue”.

But our Talmudic tale serves as a warning against the kind of judgment and simplistic moral calculus that points to suffering as retribution for sin.  It teaches that our calling is not to castigate lepers and other outcasts as unworthy of God’s favor; just the opposite, we are charged to hear their voices, heal their pain, and see their faces as the face of God.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath just before the beginning of the new month of Nisan—the month of Pesach, time of our liberation.  As we approach this sacred season, may we open our homes and our hearts to the promise of freedom and love for all, including, especially, our contemporary outcasts.  None of us can be truly free until we learn to share our blessings with those most in need of them.  Who knows—perhaps the Messiah may even be seated at your forthcoming seder table, if we but hearken to Her voice.

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