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: 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Shemini (Casimir Pulaski Day)

A fire came forth from God and consumed [Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu]; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant in saying, ‘Through those near to Me, I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’”

And Aaron was silent.
(Leviticus 10:2-3)

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
                        (Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”)

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to for speech and a time for silence.  The challenge is to figure out which response is best in any given situation—particularly in times of trauma and tragedy.

This challenge is at the heart of our Torah portion for this week, Shemini.  Aaron suffers the ultimate heartbreak when his two sons, Nadav and Avihu are instantly killed by a mysterious fire from God while offering incense on the altar.  Upon hearing of this calamity, Moses attempts to comfort his brother.  He offers a rambling—even incoherent— explanation for his nephews’ inexplicable deaths: “This is what God meant when God said, ‘Through those that are near to Me, I will be sanctified, and before all the people, I will be glorified.’”

Not surprisingly, this lame speech does not console Aaron.  His response is telling: Va-yidom Aharon—“Aaron was silent.”  In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, we don’t want explanations, excuses or diatribes—even if they are well-intentioned.  What Aaron needs from his brother is a silent, loving presence.  In such situations, words always fall short.  Explanations fail because there are no explanations.  Sometimes good people suffer and die without any justification whatsoever to ameliorate the pain of those who loved them.  We best understand and acknowledge this reality with compassionate silence.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar wisely advises: “Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him.”   Our tradition’s laws of bereavement stipulate, accordingly, that when making a shiva call, the visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks first.  As Blu Greenberg notes, The halachah enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death.  The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy.  Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.”

In social justice matters, it has often been noted that silence implies consent.  Failing to speak out against oppression perpetuates the injustice.  But in personal matters, especially in the aftermath of heartbreak and calamity, excessive chatter is only a reflection of our own discomfort.  In these situations, loving silence is often the best balm for the pain. 


Sufjan Stevens offers a heart-achingly poignant story of death and silence that echoes the emotion of this week’s portion in his song “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

He opens with two responses to the news that a good friend has been diagnosed with a terminal case of leukemia.  Stevens brings her a couple of sentimental objects; the patient’s father weeps, torn with remorse and grief:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

As the song unfolds, Stevens—a serious practicing Christian—raises the omnipresent question that confronts believers in the face of tragedy: Why doesn’t God respond to our petitions for healing:

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

The songwriter’s relationship with the dying young woman and her family is erotically-charged and complicated.  Her loss of innocence is also his own, and it creates tension with her parents.  But when she dies, everyone is simply overwhelmed with grief.  As in the aftermath of the death of Aaron’s sons, here, too, there is an immensely heavy silence.  The songwriter concludes with his anguish over what he sees as God’s role in this inexplicable loss:

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window. . . 

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And He takes and he takes and he takes

This last line is devastating: He takes and he takes and he takes

God takes and takes and takes—to our horror and dismay.  Neither Aaron nor Sufjan Stevens tries to defend him.   The words echo, then there is only the painfully, beautifully poignant instrumental music—and after the music, the silence. 

When the song ends, there is nothing, really, to say. 

Only tears. 

To hear Casimir Pulaski Day, from Sufjan Stevens’ record Illinoise: