Metzora, Illness and strength

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

We read this week the Torah of the Metzora:
זֹ֤את תִּֽהְיֶה֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת הַמְּצֹרָ֔ע בְּי֖וֹם טָהֳרָת֑וֹ וְהוּבָ֖א אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃
This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest,

The rituals are detailed, complicated. It covers everything from the physical illness, quarantine, purification, and what happens if your house catches it. Generation after generation of commentators have addressed the details of these skin diseases which no longer seem so common. From the Midrashic sources to the Talmud, the connection between metzora and motzi shem ra (evil speech) is seen. Our tradition connects the words of Miriam and Aaron against Moshe’s wife to Miriam being afflicted with skin lesions.

What happens when our illnesses have no connection to our choices? What happens when they seem random--or genetic? Our tradition was dealing with the same struggles that we have today--bad things happen. Can we attribute meaning to the bad things or are they just random?

Our regular, weekday Amidah, which we say three times daily, says:
סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ. מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ. כִּי מוחֵל וְסולֵחַ אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ:
Forgive us our Father for we have sinned, pardon us our King for we have willfully transgressed, for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who is gracious and ever willing to forgive.

As we say those words we traditionally tap our chest with a closed fist, making physical the spiritual. We acknowledge the consequences of our actions and pray that we can change our behaviors. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known to be times of repentance, but our tradition, our DAILY prayers, our coming together as a minyan, reminds us that change does not happen once a year. Rather, change happens through regular, repetitive action. Long term change happens through a million small decisions--not only one large one.

Two blessings later in the Amidah, we ask Gd for healing. We ask Gd to heal US, as well as those around us. Many choose to add additional words to specifically mention those that they love, those they have a connection with, those who need a little extra strength.
רְפָאֵנוּ ה' וְנֵרָפֵא. הושִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּותֵינוּ.
Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,
תפילה בעד החולה: יְהִי רָצון מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלהַי וֵאלהֵי אֲבותַי. שֶׁתִּשְׁלַח מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם. רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף לְחולֶה פב"פ בְּתוךְ שְׁאָר חולֵי יִשרָאֵל:
(Prayer for a sick person: May it be Your will in front of You, O Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens - a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body - to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother's name, among the other sick ones of Israel.)
כִּי אֵל מֶלֶךְ רופֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', רופֵא חולֵי עַמּו יִשרָאֵל:
for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel.

Even as we say those words, I wonder exactly what we are asking for. Are we asking Gd to literally cure illness? To assist the doctors and nurses and those with medical knowledge? Are we asking Gd to support us and give us the spiritual strength to get through the challenging times? The rabbinic answer is of course “yes”. How qualified that yes is depends on with whom you are speaking. Some of us are literally looking for healing, some are looking for support, others simply want to be heard.

You all know how much I love books. For me they can be talismans, amulets, sources of strength. Knowing that others have been where we stand, knowing that we are not alone, these things I am reminded when I put my hands against their spines. These ideas I see when I open them up and read the words inscribed within. Our sacred library, our Tanakh, our tradition connects us to so many varying ideas about illness--just like in this parsha. Again and again though, what I see is the inevitability of illness, and the great blessing that is healing.

As a rabbi, I am no stranger to hospitals and nursing homes, to visiting people when they are ill. Yet even with countless hours of those experiences, I found my own time in the hospital incredibly discomforting. Wearing a hospital gown, given medicines that affect cognition, incapable of getting out of bed for even a short period of time was scary. Knowing that my illness was temporary did not change the emotional impact.

Central to the emotional challenge was the loss of control. After my surgery, I knew that I would likely have a brief experience of radiation. Through the vagaries of insurance and refrigerated medicines the timing was unclear to me. The end result was that I had it done this past week. Although in theory side effects were supposed to be non-existent, I have again had tremendous fatigue (which online forums suggest is more common than official reports suggest). As a rabbi, it is incredibly frustrating to have to rest, to sit at home, to make phone calls and write from my dining room rather than my office. I feel tremendous guilt that I am not living up to my imagined expectations.

Of course, when I talk to someone other than myself, I know that I AM doing most of what I need to be doing. In order for me to help others, I must also take care of myself. As I remind others to put on their own oxygen masks first, I cannot forget my own. I discover that even amidst my own imagined failures, I AM reaching people, communicating, supporting our kehillah kedoshah.  I may not have been at my best, but I was still making a difference.  Perception is a funny thing. We know logically that by shifting our perspective we can see things differently, but emotionally, that shift can be challenging!

One of my colleagues, Rabbi Sarah Friedson has also started sharing online videos of the parsha from Temple Beth Shalom of Mahopac NY’s facebook page. In her video earlier this week she looked at Leviticus 14:36
וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃
the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”

One word caught her attention. “Like a plague” כְּנֶ֕גַע in Hebrew. When you’ve got a plague on your house, you know it is a plague. Why do you need to go to the priest and say “something like”? HUMILITY. We desperately need humility.

Being forced to stay in a bed. Being forced to rest. I have been reminded about humility. I cannot do it alone. I cannot take care of my family alone. I cannot take care of the shul alone. We cannot do it alone. It is a lesson our Jewish tradition hits us over the head with. From illness--with bikkur cholim--to kashrut or Jewish education which requires infrastructure--to saying kaddish which needs a minyan. Over and over, we are commanded to live in community. What has been the joke with Israel’s attempt to land a craft on the moon? Where will it find a minyan?

Speaking of minyan, minyan is a cyclical group. It can be feast or famine. When we have a number of people saying kaddish, when the snow birds are in town, we are in great shape. Other times of year it is more challenging. Thank Gd, we have had fewer losses recently. We need your help! Committing to one morning or evening can help us make a difference. You aren’t just doing it for someone else--you are doing it for yourself. Being a part of that very special community is incredible. I know personally that being there on a regular basis makes my life more meaningful. It connects me to Gd, to Torah, to the people and the community of Israel.

Last week we spoke about empathy. This week we speak about illness and community. Ultimately, they are the same topic. As Jews, we have a counter-cultural identity. We are not bowling alone. We are a team. When one of us is ill, as will happen to every one of us at some point, we all have lost something. By coming together, by making chicken soup, by praying in minyan, by making a phone call, sending a text, visiting in person, we change this world for the better.

If I learned nothing else from my recent challenges, I learned that our home at CBI, our home in St Petersburg, is an incredibly special one. With whomever I talk, I speak about the special blessings of CBI. Our community is one that brings together a particularly diverse group of Jews and loved ones. We are truly blessed. We are not alone here. We are side by side.

This is our Torah!