Rabbi Jackie Tabick – 12 April 2019
This year has an extra challenge for rabbis, it is a leap year so the two most difficult Torah portions to write sermons about, Tazria and Metzorah, have been split up and we read them on two separate weeks.
What’s the problem with Metzorah? Well the content seems really so unedifying to the modern ear. It deals with the purification rituals for lepers (probably not the illness we now know as leprosy) as well as for houses affected by a similar plague and it concludes with other bodily emissions which cause obvious distress. Why should we read this stuff? Thankfully no one comes to a rabbi to diagnose or treat bodily illnesses or mildew in their house whereas in ancient times, they did, of course, expect the priests to do just that.
But actually, difficult and seemingly irrelevant though the sedra is, there is an important challenge for all of us within it. In ancient times, science, medicine, religion and ritual were all bound up together. We may feel repulsed by the blood and gore of the sacrificial system, but it was one that had power and mystique and it resonated in the hearts of our ancestors. Through them, guilt could be assuaged, something we find very hard to do nowadays. And the prayer and the pronouncements of the priests brought closure through healing, repair or punishment.
With the coming of the modern world, we have experienced a dismembering of these links. Until recently, the trend of modern science has been to divide research into smaller and smaller sections and it’s a method that has had its great successes. We all know doctors who still treat just their speciality, even if it is as limited as conditions affecting left big toes, and forget the person who is attached to that appendage. Though thankfully, more and more of the medical profession are adopting more holistic approaches. But there are still too many experts, in different fields, who cannot feel the essential oneness behind creation or who cannot see the need to put ethics into the scientific resolutions of what is good for us or the world. To understand and to work within that unity is to me the meaning of the rabbinic idea that we are co-partners with God in the work of creation. As God is one and created a universe that is one so we have to respect the implications of that unity in our lives and work. And try to allow it to influence the way we treat each other in the small details of our lives as well as the way we approach the greater aspects of the universe and everything.
But what has that to do with us? Well one of the duties of community has to be to represent this wholeness of life. And there are so many around us who are shattered by illnesses or bewildered by the divisive society that we inhabit at the moment. Remember the Torah teaches we are all priests. As priests, we have to recognise and deal with the rottenness, the mildew in society, the pain and suffering of the ill, and take note of the wet rot and plagues that erupt again and again around us. We still have need not just for pills and potions but also for the support of the spiritual healing that goes with a holy community.
The Sefer Yetzirah, one of the very early mystical books, points out that it takes a very simple rotation of letters to turn the word plague nega נגע into oneg ענג or joy. Just another way of looking at things. If we forget the delight the oneg of a spiritual connection with the oneness of God can bring to support us, then Sefer Yetzirah taught, nega, plague will come.
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