Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tazria (Everybody Hurts)

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 arrive, 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 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, and prescribes quarantine outside the camp for all who are stricken.  Most of the Sages saw tzara’at as the physical sign of a deeper spiritual sickness.  They linked the disease to malicious speech, suggesting that the malady is a form of divine punishment for lashon ha-ra, the “evil tongue”.

But our Talmudic tale serves as a warning against this tendency toward judgment and its simplistic moral calculus that approaches suffering as retribution for sin.  The story cautions against castigating lepers and other outcasts as unworthy of God’s favor; just the opposite, we are charged to hear their voices, help to heal their pain, and see in their faces the face of God.

This same message of compassion lies at the heart of REM’s classic song, “Everybody Hurts,” from their 1992 album Automatic for the People.  It begins with just Peter Buck’s guitar, in 3/4 time.  Then, as Michael Stipe’s sad and tender vocal comes in— When your day is long and the night—the night is yours alone—we know that we are waltzing with our pain.  It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, too.

When the chorus arrives, the music recognizes, honestly and openly, the hurt we endure; at the same time, it urges us to hang on, because we are all in this dance together.

When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life
Well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

There is comfort in company: Now it’s time to sing along.

The lyrics repeat, circling back upon themselves, like heartache and despair.  The song is simple, because in such matters, less is more.  But it also builds, adding strings and then drums, driving home the only true words of consolation:

No, no, no, you’re not along. . .
Everybody hurts sometimes

The music hits a crescendo, then dials it down, builds and falls, again and again, reminding us that healing is not a linear progression.  There will be good days and bad; good hours and minutes—and bad.  Still, we dance together.  And in the end, victory lies in endurance:

Hold on, hold
Hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Everybody hurts
You are not alone

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath that begins 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, those on the margins.  Everybody hurts.  No one should be alone.  None of us can be truly free until we learn to share our blessings with those most in need.  Who knows—perhaps the Messiah may even be seated at our forthcoming seder table, if we but hearken to Her voice.

For a great live recording of REM performing “Everybody Hurts” see: 

1 comment:

B2 said...

Thank you again, Maestro.