One of the joys of working at Gann Academy is the opportunity to share a reflection on the Torah portion of the week. We offer these reflections at our “town meeting” each Friday morning, and we also send them to parents via email. Here’s my contribution from this past Friday, March 5, 2019 (Leviticus 12:1-13:59).
Once, when I was in graduate school, my friends and I were out walking at night. We passed a disheveled man who was stumbling and appeared either chemically dependent or mentally ill. He seemed to motion toward us, but we chose to walk by without acknowledging him. He began calling out specifically to us. Still we moved on, ignoring his entreaties. Then I heard a different noise and turned around. In an instant, he grabbed my collar with both hands and somehow swung us both off the sidewalk. We found ourselves in the middle of a city street, his white-knuckled hands clenched by my chin. Cars hit the brakes. We stood eye to eye, staring at each other, smelling each other’s breath. My friends were back on the sidewalk, frozen still.
I remember that moment when I read this week’s Torah portion, a parashah that at first glance is challenging to modern sensibilities. We learn about the ritual practices surrounding the impurity of a woman who has just given birth. We then segue to a detailed description of how those ill with skin diseases were isolated and sometimes expelled from the community until they healed – if ever. The requirement of the afflicted to cry “Impure!” while walking the streets seems to be a textbook example of public shaming.
But of course the Torah is much more nuanced. Upon closer review of this and other passages, we learn that all of us are, at one time or another in our lives, impure – releasing blood with childbirth, existing in some state of serious illness, or coming in close contact with a corpse. Impurity is, in that sense, a grey zone between life and death. Those who inhabit this state must follow prescribed rituals of isolation until time passes and/or they heal, at which time other practices bring them back to a state of cleanliness. Impurity itself was a value-neutral and (hopefully) temporary condition.
How, then, to understand the requirement that the metzora, the afflicted, must call out their impure state? Some biblical interpreters suggest that point of this behavior, rather than to distance, alienate, and shame, was instead to incur compassion and prayers. As Shai Held writes, “One who yearns to know that others care for him or her should ask for expressions of love and concern … [while] to be asked to pray for someone is to be charged with affirming their humanity totally and unconditionally and with cultivating empathy for them.”
The disheveled man held tight, for several long seconds, before he let go and stumbled away. I quickly rejoined my friends, and we went inside a building to allow my surge of adrenaline to subside. At the time, I thought he was simply crazed and confused. But now I think that this man rejected my rejection of him. He knew that he deserved to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. He demanded of me the sort of physical closeness that compassion must sometimes require. And his efforts paid off, for now I am now far more likely to recognize, pray for, and assist those like him whom I encounter. Decades later, I see him, and I remember him still.
Assistant Head of School