Shabbat HaHodesh: Slow Down

וצריך שיוסר השופט בכל הענינים שיש במסכת אבות כגון שיהיה מתון בדין ואל ימהר פסק דין שאפשר שיהיה בדין ההוא ענין נסתר

“The judge must be restrained by all of the matters that are in Tractate Avot – for example, that he be deliberate in judgement, and not be quick to execute a decision, as it is possible that there be a hidden matter in the case!” – Hakdamat haRambam laMishnah

Why do we jump to accuse, and, even worse, to condemn? Our tradition offers us insights into our own worst impulses, and, barukh HaShem (thank G*d) a path back from that dead end. This week’s parashah, coming as it does as we mark the New Year of the Jewish calendar, is an opportunity for us to assess, to discern, and perhaps to learn to do better.

The Book VaYikra, Leviticus, is dismissed by many as archaic and irrelevant for modern Judaism. But in the same way that knowing the story of our ancestors imbues our own lives with meaning, considering the ways of ancient Israelites sheds light on modern humans who happen to be Jews. Human nature does not change so radically; we all need food and water to survive, and community to thrive.

This week’s parashah is among the most easily dismissed, or at least ridiculed. The part of parashat Tazria which we read in the third year of the Triennial Cycle is jokingly called “the dermatologist’s Torah” because it is entirely concerned with skin conditions (except for a short tangent treating cloth). 

We laugh too quickly, though; the human body is mysterious, and when something appears visually on the surface of the largest organ of the body – the envelope that protects and contains us – we are still as concerned, and should be, as our ancestors were. “It’s just a spot” can be a freckle – or a melanoma. 

אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֙חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּהֲנִֽים׃

When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Lev. 13.2)

Not unlike the life-and-death trust we want to put in our doctors today, our ancestors are to go to the representatives of HaShem for discernment. But here is where the comparison ends, for after the priests examine the affliction, their responsibility is to pronounce whether isolation is indicated. They do not prescribe, they do not advise, they do nothing to heal. They only observe.

The afflicted person will either recover or not, perhaps due to the ministrations of someone else who is a healer within the community. This is clearly not the interest of the passage, which shares only that the affliction will be declared tamey or tahor, “ritually clean” or “ritually unclean,” by a priest. Note that this is not a moral judgement, only a technical one.

Rashi, one of the pre-eminent commentators of all Jewish time, points this out: “It is an enactment of Scripture that the uncleanness and purification of skin plagues are pronounced only by the mouth of a priest” (Sifra, Tazria Parashat Nega’im, Section 1.9). Where Rashi goes it is always important to try to follow, and this time is no exception.

The source Rashi cites is old; it speaks to the unchanging nature of human being. When it comes to calling another person “unclean” and thus unwelcome in our community we believe in our own power of discernment to make that judgement. Our tradition is warning us in no uncertain terms that we are wrong; only a priest can judge tamey or tahor. 

By the most simple ethical algorithm, we are being told here 

  1. to come from a place of humility, not judgement: you see, you do not know. None of us truly knows what is going on in the heart of another person. 
  2. In a case of suspicion, we are to consult with someone who is closer to HaShem than we are. This may strike you as in some way offensive, in which case see #1.
  3. It takes a week to see if the skin condition is meaningful. How might we find our judgements of others altered for the good if we gave it a week before judging?

It is so very appropriate that the international observance of Trans Day of Visibility occurred yesterday, during the week of Shabbat Tazria,  sinceourbeloved trans familyhas often been victimized by undiscerning and immoral condemnation for appearance.

The great compendium of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, transmits this halakha in its volume “The Way of Life”:

One who sees a person who is unusual looking [i.e. out of one’s lived experience], if they have been this way since birth, recites the blessing Blessed is the One who created a variety of creations, and if they have not been this way since birth, one recites Blessed is the True Judge. This is recited when we first see them, and their appearance is most striking. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Hayim 225.9)

There is no condemnation inherent in recognizing difference. The kind of judgment that leads to condemnation occurs only when we over-reach, forgetting that we are neither priests nor HaShem. For our Jewish ethical tradition, a difference seen for the first time should produce only a dawning awareness of the awesome myriads of variation of the rainbow of existence.

מה גדלו מעשיך ה מאד עמקו מחשבותיך
How great are the works of Creation, how beyond our understanding! 
(Psalm 92)

Shabbat Shalom and happy Jewish New Year,
Rabbi Ariel

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