Shabbat Ha’Gadol 2016 - 5776

Post date: Apr 15, 2016 5:17:53 PM

This week’s parsha – Metzora – comes from Vayikra (Leviticus), a book dreaded by myself and some fellow Jewish educators I know. Why dreaded? Because to engage and excite a room full of young minds, I want to talk about brothers warring against one another, floods, trickery, and visions in the night. Spending classroom hours talking about the proper procedures for leprosy just doesn’t have the same appeal.

Reading through the parsha, however, I was struck by passuk 34 of today’s Torah reading – “When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession...” This appears to be God predicting, or perhaps warning, the Israelites of their future misfortune. First, it uses the same word, nega, here to refer to a plague, and in Shemot (Exodus) to refer to the 10 plagues that God brings upon the Egyptians. In this first way, the text of our parsha brings us to Pesach.

There is another, more powerful connection between these texts, however. We first must look back one week to Parshat Tazria, often read together with this week’s parsha. Parshat Tazria deals with leprosy as well, including the proscription to ”hisgir” someone whom the priest has determined to have leprosy. Hisgir comes from the root letters samech gimmel resh, meaning ‘close.’ Mechon mamre translates this word as ‘to shut up’ a person with leprosy, but it may be closer to the text to say a person should be ‘closed’ or ‘closed off.’ This idea of being closed, or closed off, in English has a much more social and emotional feel than simply being shut in one’s home due to patches of leprosy skin. When we say someone is ‘closed’ or ‘closed off,’ we often mean that they are narrow-minded, stuck in their ways, or stodgy and unwilling to engage.

What, then, can we make of this plague of leprosy that God is foretelling will come to the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan? Will it be a literal plague of bacterial disease, or rather a plague causing the Israelites to be “closed off” in some other way? And this brings me back to teaching.

In my Hebrew school class, we read the Book of Joshua, about the fortune of the people of Israel as they enter the land of Canaan – exactly what is being predicted and described in passuk 34 of this week’s parsha. My students are often fascinated by the war waged by the Israelites against the native inhabitants of Canaan. The savage nature of the defeat of Jericho raises many questions – Why burn the entire city? Why kill everyone (other than Rahav and her family) in the city? Why not just take over and rule them?

I can’t say I ever have particularly compelling answers – most often, I resort to the age-old teacher trick of, “That’s a great question! Why do you think they do that?” But, perhaps the answer lies here, in Parshat Metzora. The plague of leprosy made the Israelites sagoor - closed off – when they entered the land of Canaan. It made them unable to see past pillaging the land that they had won in battle.

Many times, I think we find ourselves closed off. As Pesach approaches, it is an important time to consider not only what our ancestors were closed off to, but what we, ourselves, are closed off to in our own lives.

One of the beautiful things about teaching children is their openness. They are willing to entertain new ideas, be told new ‘truths,’ and seek new understandings. Their brains are programmed to learn more, all the time. And so they search for meaning, open to all the possibilities. It is a great privilege and great responsibility to be one of those whom they ask for meaning, and ask for ‘truth.’

As a teacher, I find myself answering the persistent question, “But is the story true??” with things like, “Some people believe it is literally true, and some people believe it is more like a metaphor or a story to teach us something very important.” My answers, I realize, attempt to keep their minds open. Open to the possibility that they will one day meet people who believe the words of the Torah to be literal, historical truth. Open to those who will tell them that the Bible is a fascinating work, entirely fictional. When they walk out of my classroom and into the world, I hope my students have minds more open than the day they walked into it.

At times, though, I feel like we lose this beautiful, precious open-mindedness. We become, ourselves, closed off – sagoor. The story of Pesach is one of new beginnings – for the world as spring arrives, and for our ancestors as the Israelites enter a new stage of existence. In this season of new life, how can we become more open? What is it that we are closed off to, that we cannot accept? Perhaps it is new ideas, or new technology, or new people. How can we take a step backward, to our child-like selves, and become open? Must we take a risk and meet someone? Perhaps try something out that may be anxiety-provoking or seem too complex. Or, perhaps we must listen. Truly hear new ideas, and seek to be open to them. This is not always easy, but, as Parshat Metzora shows us, there are cures and treatments for leprosy – one need not remain shut up and closed off forever.

Shabbat Shalom, and Have a Happy and Kosher Pesah

Yvonne Asher

Yvonne Asher received her Masters of Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Suffolk University.