Saturday, April 21, 2007


Tzaria/M'tzora Blogging

In our modern, clinical world-view, the Priestly Code, especially those sections dealing with what's translated as "leprosy" (although it does not refer to Hansen's disease), seem remote and meaningless. Hence, at this time of year, Rabbis and lay preachers the world over turn to the Prophetic readings for sermon material -- and in this case, blog material (n.b. some of this I know I've covered in the past, so bear with the repetition ...).

And what an interesting portion we had last week: four people, marginalized by their "scale disease" (a preferred translation) end up bringing the good news to Samaria that the siege of their city is over. By being left outside of the besieged town, by the very marginality of their status, they are in the perfect position to be the salvation of their city. Of course, first they have to make the moral choice that just feasting on the victuals left by the Arameans who fled what they thought were neo-Hittite and Egyptian armies (really just a clever sound effect from the Lord) was not right -- that they should inform the city from which they were temporarily cast out. And before that, even, they needed to make the decision to get off their bums and do something about their situation. Yet the fact remains that, like the cornerstone rejected by the builder, it was these four people on the margins of society who saved society.

This echoes the evolution of the priesthood itself. In the Torah, you see aspects of priestliness given to those who would otherwise be marginal figures due to their over-zealous tendencies toward violence: Levi is disposed of his share in the lands of Israel due to his vengeance and Pinchas is given the priesthood to reign in and redirect his violently zealous tendencies. Indeed, the priesthood itself is a potentially "polluting" profession and the priests are all but an untouchable caste: the priesthood is, in a sense a punishment even as it is an opportunity to lead oneself and one's society in spiritual growth.

In a sense, the priests were the physicians of their time. And like the evolution of barbers into surgeons, the prestige of the priesthood increased as time went by and religion centralized in Judah and Israel. The story of the priesthood is the story of a marginal people, given a role in society, with which role they can excel and be integrated into that society.

The very idea of "holiness" is that of separateness. Those who are separated often have a different perspective that can enrich society (indeed, the real danger of intelligent design is not that it denies "survival of the fittest" but that it ignores the real importance of diversity in evolution -- the salvation of a species is not necessarily the seemingly intelligently designed perfect specimen, but the mutant). But first, like the "lepers" of the Haftarah portion, they must get off their bums. And then they must decide that what they are doing isn't right -- that they need to enrich society.

As we learned all too tragically last week, our society simply does not know how to deal with marginal figures. What do we do? How do we prevent them from lashing out but rather re-integrate them into our society and let them enrich us rather than kill us? I have no answers here, but somehow the Torah seems to -- in the case of Levi, in the case of Pinchas, etc.

Perhaps the key lies in the notion of the priesthood. As the physicians of the time, priests were responsible for physical healing ... but as priests, they were responsible for spiritual healing as well. It is only recently that we have rediscovered the importance of healing the whole body and the spirit. Disease, like the "scale disease", both physical and mental, can be isolating and alienating. And our society needs to learn to deal with disease.

To start with, we need real health care reform. But we must go further. The right wing is right -- something is deeply sick about our society. While I tend to think that their "prescriptions" go in exactly the wrong direction (parallel to how the neo-cons have correctly identified many problems but their proposed "solutions" really are more of the same "realism" which they criticize), we do need to do a better job at being not only an open society but a friendly society. A society which pulls people in, rather than pushes them out onto our violent edges.

But how do we as individuals and as a society do this, which we must do before it is too late?

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