FJMC Mitzvah Men's Club Shabbat--Tazria

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

Last century, I stood in front of Congregation Beth Shalom in Dunwoody, GA, with family and friends. I read from the Torah, led the services, and shared words of Torah. I suppose one might say not much has changed this century! Standing on that bimah I spoke about Parshat Tazria. While I have not found my original bar mitzvah speech, I wonder if I spoke to the dermatologists in the audience or focused on the rabbinic relation to motzi shem ra, to evil speech. On this Mitzvah Men’s Club Shabbat, I want to discuss masculinity and empathy.

For some they are mutually exclusive concepts, yet I think our Torah would disagree. Our Jewish leaders regularly demonstrate empathy. Our rabbinic tradition demands empathetic treatment of those who are ill, even discussing when it might be best to refrain from speaking to a patient about their condition.

In 2017, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Noah Farkas wrote in the LA Jewish Journal about how Tazria teaches empathy. ( He opened with a necessary theological apology. Speaking of this rabbinic connection between behavior and illness, he wrote of how so many feel guilt, that they somehow deserve their illness, and argued that we must break this link. “When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.” When I stand in a hospital room, I am reminded of this over and over again. Illness comes to young and old, to innocent and guilty, to good and not so good people. Having recently experienced the challenges of illness, I am acutely aware of the emotional roller coaster that sickness can bring.

While there are some diseases that may be consequence of past choices, they are NOT punishment for sins in other parts of our life. We may CHOOSE to try to gain strength from the suffering, but it does not mean the suffering is a consequence of our actions. Rabbi Farkas has a Jewish bio-medical ethics group with doctors and wrote of the parallels between our modern doctors and the priests of old. He reminds us that empathy is a necessity for medical care. “After the priest sees them and welcomes them back to the community, a sacrificial rite is performed. The patient is brought to the literal center of the community and anointed in the same manner with the same rituals that anoint the High Priest over the people. Both priest and patient are bound together in this ritual of mutuality.” I think that as mechanized and technologicized (I may have made up that word) as medicine has become, the human connection is essential. Some medical schools even have mock patient scenarios as part of their interviews to weed out potential doctors who have absolutely no bedside manner!

In recent years, appropriate male behavior has been discussed in public forums. Actions that might have been thought to be innocent in one time or place are unacceptable today. One major change is empathy! We are looking at our actions not only from the perspective of the one acting, but the one who is being affected by the behavior.

(A recent controversy on this issue was a Gillette ad about masculinity. It argued against the “boys will be boys attitude” and said men have a responsibility to stand up against poor choices by men and boys. The internet talking heads went crazy. Video is linked above.After watching the video myself, I really have no idea what the controversy was about. Nothing in the video is remotely offensive to me. It just seems like responsible parenting.)

Empathy is central to Jewish life. Whether we are talking about shooing away the mother bird when we take eggs, to being reminded dozens of times not to mistreat the stranger since WE were slaves in Egypt, I could spend weeks speaking only about empathy. What do we remember about Moses’ early life? We remember that he saw someone being harmed and stopped it. He had empathy.

I want to go back to the exciting skin diseases of the parsha. Vayikra 13:3 says:
וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע בְּעֽוֹר־הַ֠בָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָ֨ר בַּנֶּ֜גַע הָפַ֣ךְ ׀ לָבָ֗ן וּמַרְאֵ֤ה הַנֶּ֙גַע֙ עָמֹק֙ מֵע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֔וֹ נֶ֥גַע צָרַ֖עַת ה֑וּא וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ.
׃The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean

As my colleagues noted, it is strange that the priest seems to examine or look at the person or irritation twice. The question is the focus of the second look. Before declaring the person clean or unclean, the priest must look at the WHOLE person. Like every hospital and medical practice claims today, they must not just look at the illness, but the entire person. Doctors, nurses and our ancient priests recognize that the illness is not in isolation. It is not just a skin infection. It is on a human being. That person has needs, wants, hopes, dreams. That person lives in their economic, social, religious context. If the doctor sees only the irritation, she cannot do her job. That is why hospitals have care teams, with chaplains and social workers, to ensure that the entire patient is treated, not just the disease.

This is a major challenge of the economics of medicine today, when doctors are required by their employers to see far too many patients. They have no time to be patient and to do their jobs well and are often forced to work extra unpaid hours to deal with their paperwork and computers. While I cannot claim to have a solution for that issue, our Torah reminds us that it is a problem! So as I declare the importance of empathy FROM the medical professions, let us also have have empathy FOR the medical professions. They, too, are people who must have lives and possibilities. On this Mitzvah Men’s Club Shabbat, I am glad to see so many of us looking to support one another, to lift one another up, to celebrate together. Shabbat Shalom!