Our Torah portion seems to talk about skin diseases and bodily infections. It is hardly a redeeming topic to share with you. However, looking a little deeper into the reading we learn that our ancestors felt that these skin diseases were a sign that the inflicted had done something wrong, mostly, Lashon Hara, was a gossiper, and is considered cursed by God. One of the methods of “cure” was isolation. Rejecting a person from being with a community out of fear that he could “infect” the community also. This person would be isolated until the Kohen, priests, will examine the infected person or home with a special ritual and will declare him “pure” or clean of infection. That was the point at which the “infected” or “cursed” be able to rejoin the community.
Isolation or rejection is one of society's most powerful tools for regulating and restraining undesirable behavior. As children, we knew that misconduct carried the risk of a parental glare of disapproval, and perhaps banishment to our bedrooms. As adults, the rod of imprisonment hangs over would be criminals as a deterrent for all sorts of illegal behavior.
But how effective is enforced isolation in preventing crime, and perhaps more importantly, invoking a feeling of regret in the offender? Psychologists and social researchers are reevaluating this age old method of dealing with crime. Banishment and imprisonment may remove the criminal from our midst, thereby limiting the risks to the rest of us from being “infected” by his wrong behavior.
The Torah also has its proscribed system of isolation for certain offenses. Tzaraat was a divinely ordained affliction that came upon an individual who was guilty of slanderous talk against his fellow man. Upon being declared impure, the leper was sent out of all three camps and kept completely secluded from the rest of society. His punishment corresponded to his crime. His slanderous talk resulted in friction and disunion between people; his penalty was enforced separation from the community.
Yet, it is important to note the process whereby the leper was declared impure. One who discovers a suspicious spot on his skin must have it inspected by a learned scholar. If the sage determines that the spot does indeed have all the symptoms of tzaraat, he then presents it to the Kohen, who declares him impure. The Kohen may be completely ignorant of the details of the laws regarding tzaraat, yet the individual is not declared impure unless the Kohen pronounces him as such. Even if the Kohen merely echoes the decision of the learned scholar, it is his affirmation rather than the scholar's learned opinion that finalizes the person's status.
It is puzzling why the Torah places the declaration of impurity upon the Kohen. The Kohen, after all, was distinct in his special status of purity. The Kohen performed the most dignified and gracious tasks in the Holy Temple and was obligated to refrain from defiling himself through any contact with ritual impurity. Why must the Kohen be the one to declare him impure?
The Kohen's mandatory involvement sheds light on the Torah's view of societal isolation as a punishment and deterrent for wrongdoing. The Kohen's function aside from his service in the Temple was to serve as a conduit of blessings for the Jewish People.
The Kohanim have maintained this role throughout Jewish history through their recital of the priestly blessing in the synagogue. Before starting the Priestly Blessing, the Kohanim recite a benediction concluding with the words: "Who has commanded us to bless the Jewish people, with love." At the beginning of the Torah Service, when we circle with the Torah, I greet each person in the synagogue. When I get to the Kohanim, quietly I ask them if they are fit to bless us? If the Kohen feels that he is lacking in a measure of love for even one member of the community, he is obliged to step down and refrain from uttering the Priestly Blessing. Only the Kohen, known as a "man of kindness," has the authority to declare a person impure resulting in his banishment from the camp of the Jewish people.
The Kohen's pronouncement is based upon the opinion of the learned scholar well versed in the myriad laws of various skin conditions and their ritual status. Nevertheless, it is the Kohen who is given the final say over matters of impurity. The Kohen's heart overflowing with love for his fellow man will not allow him to make such a declaration lightly.
Isolation and rejection are almost completely ineffective means of ameliorating criminal behavior when there is an absence of one critical ingredient: love. Once an individual feels cast out of his society, he loses his greatest source of motivation and encouragement to lead a wholesome and productive life. The Kohen is there to teach us that even when censuring and condemning improper behavior, we must never lose sight of our primary role which is to extend a helping and supporting hand to every member of society, no matter what his or her status may be.
An individual who is able to utter a condemnation of another human being must carefully examine his or her own heart. Those who are lacking in love and compassion are incapable of coming to a true conclusion regarding another person's status. Instead, they will succeed only in driving others further away with their unrelenting critical attitudes. In fact, one who is not qualified to render someone "impure," and does so anyway because of bitterness and a heart full of condemnation is guilty of slander, the very offense that incurs the penalty of tzaraat.
There is no telling how deeply we can impact and influence all of society when we keep our hearts open to all with kindness and compassion. The Kohen, a man of kindness, guides us in attaining this exalted level of sensitivity. It is this form of unconditional love that will obliterate the primary cause of isolation.
May God guide us next time we encounter a form of imperfection in another human being, not to turn away. In the manner of the Kohen, let us look beyond the external blemish into the soul. Our kind eye and loving heart will accomplish far more than our most severe isolation. These small acts of unity and acceptance have the power to change the landscape of society from a cold and vicious jungle to a place where peace, serenity, and harmony will reign. May it be so. Amen.
A portion of this D’var Torah was taken from, “Rejection” by Chaya Shuchat.
By Rabbinic Intern Gregory Metzger
“Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering: That is the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night . . . And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning . . . A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” - Leviticus 6:1-6.
It is not easy to keep the fire alive – to maintain passion in the pursuit of our careers and our lifes’s works; The pursuit of self improvement; and the pursuit of peace and social justice. The Torah understands this and not only commands us to keep the flames burning, but also guides us on how to do it.
“And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it, he shall arrange the burnt offering and cause the fats of the peace offerings to [go up ] . . . upon it.” - Leviticus 6:5
Our pursuits require energy. They require constant renewal. This flame is kindled initially by Love, by Desire, by a bright vision of the future. They may otherwise be kindled by another vision: by anger and outrage at the injustice, the violence, brutality and suffering. Were this SPARK enough to keep the fire burning, it would be easy. We could just dream, or read the paper, watch the news and study current events. There is enough fuel to burn and burn and burn. But Love, Desire, Anger and Outrage are not enough – in fact, when talking about “Expanding the boundaries of Justice in this world” anger and outrage alone, will put the fire out. Our efforts produce results that spirit us forward, but we also burn out.
“. . . And he shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar. He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.” - Leviticus 6:3-4
The Sfat Emet says that “according to the burning of the refuse, so is the measure of the holiness of the person.”
He suggests that we can offer our negativity and transform it, make it holy through fire. However, the energy of desire, of anger and of outrage produce toxic residue – ashes that will suffocate the fire. We must find a way to remove this negativity, to purify ourselves from the toxic ashes that come from confronting evil.
“And this is the law of the peace offering, which he shall bring to the Lord. If he is bringing it as a thanksgiving offering . . . the flesh of his thanksgiving peace offering shall be eaten on the day it is offered up; he shall not leave any of it over until morning.” - Leviticus 7:12-15
The way to purify ourselves from the toxicity of the negative that builds from pushing forward on the power desire, the fuel of anger and outrage is to eat of the joy from the offerings of thanksgiving. This flame may be kindled by our loving desires or our response to injustice, the violence, brutality and suffering, but it is stoked and made brighter by offerings made in gratitude. It is easy to fall prey to the negative.
We have been working to better the world for a long time and there is so much left to do. We are bombarded by messages that would tell us that we are failing. These messages are ash and they are lies. The truth is our thanksgiving.
The truth is that your participation in Tikkun Olam makes a difference. I have amazing experiences as an advocate and activist for Social Justice. I get to see casual and committed people JUST LIKE YOU come together and make a difference in the lives of thousands and of individuals.
Witnessing the “good works” and being inspired by the lights that I see in you and others shine is the gratitude that stokes the fire! It is said that in the World to Come, there will be no negativity and no war and no guilt and no need to make the Korbon (the sacrifices), yet we will continue to bring the thanksgiving offering!
Burnout and toxicity are replaced by joy and vitality when we make our offerings in community and with an open heart. I ask you to support our social justice committee and co-chairs, Renee and Vivian and offer your self - heart and soul." Witness and celebrate all the “good works” and inspired actions they and this holy community are leading.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.