Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we give.
This is why Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) is considered the greatest of our traditional commentators. Many of the sages who followed him strongly disagree with the explanations he offers to resolve difficult Torah passages—yet all recognize his genius in knowing the perfect questions to pose about them.
So what is the proper question to consider with this week’s double portion from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora? The text focuses on tzora’at, a leprosy-like skin affliction. Most of the Rabbis ask: “Why?” They struggle to explain the etiology of this mysterious affliction. The subtext of their inquiry is: “What causes people come down with tzora’at?” Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”
But I believe that for all of their wisdom, in this case, the classic commentaries ask the wrong question. As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for bad behavior.” Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.
In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?” They are, instead: What do we do now? How can I help? Which is the path of compassion? Where are the possibilities of healing and love?
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness. We do well to heed his words:
When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions? When the answers call us to compassionate action.
Our character trait to develop this week is lovingkindness, which is defined in Hebrew as chesed. In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai teaches that this trait is the very heart of Torah. He notes: “Torah begins with an act of lovingkindness and ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says: God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them. It ends with an act of lovingkindness, as it says, God buried Moses in the valley. . . .”
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Make a visit, a phone call, or send a card every day this week, as an act of lovingkindness