Thursday, 11 Apr 2019

Written by Daniela Touati

Every Sunday morning, Rabbi Tom Cohen from KEHILAT GESHER Paris starts the Cheder classes by telling a Jewish story with an ethical content. This is the favourite moment not only for the children but also for their parents and, I must confess that it is mine too. In doing so, he is perpetuating the old tradition of the Maggid, the talented Eastern European peddler who was selling goods while telling stories. One can wonder if people were buying goods or rather stories from the Maggid. Tales make children grow up, and they are vital for adults too. Story-telling is an art, largely present in the Torah, and its quality has contributed to making it a worldwide best-seller. The characters described and their journey through life are mirrors that reflect our own lives and journeys. The main protagonists of the biblical stories can alternatively attract or repel us. Torah is a book that teaches us about life and the relationship to God and each other, but it is much more than that, it affects us and changes us.

The book of Leviticus, essentially made up of a list of laws, is an exception to the rule. While one can easily relate to stories which are thought-provoking and which can model us, it is more challenging to find a profound meaning in a ‘code of conduct’.  In order to bring this dry text to life, it needs to be mediated. This was and is still the rabbis’ role : the midrashim composed by the rabbis gave meaning to the most abstruse texts. By doing so, they used to set up a dialogue between one text and another and gave them a new life, since, as we know, the Torah is a tree of life.

When we encounter this week’s Torat haTzaraat- the code of the leper, how can one make sense of it? First, if I was to write a sermon, I would look at the difficulty of translating the word ‘Tzaraat’ into ‘leper’, as still today leper is not considered to be an adequate term. Then by associating ideas, as our Sages did, I would appreciate their cleverness in finding in the word Metzora the contraction of Motze Shem Ra meaning slander. By relating it to Myriam, who was afflicted by tzaraat after speaking slanderously of her new Cushite sister-in-law, I would consider if it might be God’s punishment. Further, why did it only afflict Myriam? Since Aaron  also libelled his sister-in-law. A line of thought could lead me to the use of language today, the problem of online bullying and evil speech. Step by step last week’s appeal by T’ruah[1] would come to my mind asking American Jews not to attend Netanyahu’s speech at AIPAC, in order not to become complicit of lashon hara[2]. At the same time, I would keep in mind that Election Day in Israel is near[3], and one should not interfere in politics. Then, a picture would appear in front of my eyes: Netanyahu and Trump wearing the same black suit and red tie, with similar coloured hair.  Am I mocking them? Is it lashon hara?[4] Or rather a very deep concern for the political path taken by two democratic ‘promised lands’, both in a state of ethical decay. Then I would remember that I was told very early on on my rabbinical journey, not to speak about politics in a sermon. In France, the separation between religion and politics and the related duty to refrain are longstanding and my reputation and career could be damaged.  Yet what about the woman rabbi in Paris whose recent book about antisemitism was met with such interest and wide media coverage? What role-model should I take, what kind of rabbi should I be?  What are my centres of interest, and could I be a rabbi if I continue to believe that everything is political? However, there are two ways of reflecting on our broken world: telling the truth and risking putting one’s foot in one’s mouth, or using metaphors, parables, folk stories, and humour to say what one thinks, in disguise.

Let’s come back to the leper and observe how the weekly Haftarah from 2 Kings would lead us on a totally different path. It tells the story of four ‘m’tzoraïm’ – ritually contaminated men, who live at the gates of Samaria, in a time of economic crisis, resulting in very high food prices and famine. They break the law, decide to risk their lives and enter the city which they were forbidden to enter. Stepping back to put the story in perspective I could consider that its topic is about social justice, and how we treat the poor and the vulnerable among us. The Haftarah gives us an insight into how difficult it is to live with stickers on one’s head, to be rejected for being different, to be shut out and live in a liminal space, where no-one even looks at one. As if one does not exist anymore. Another burning topic that resonates with what happens in our own society.

If we were on the threshold of Pessach as we are now, on Shabbat HaGadol, and attending an orthodox synagogue, we would listen to the major and lengthy sermon of the year (together with Yom Kippur). The rabbi would use this time to remind his flock of the very stringent kashrut laws that govern Pessach. Association of ideas again, it would connect us to purity and impurity and we would revisit the leper story again. Is it ‘kosher’ to speak about purity and impurity today? What sense can we make of it? Rabbi Alex Israel from the Pardes Institute gives these laws a new insight. Purity laws called Tohora were meant to be applied when one encountered God in the Temple, these were very special moments when one needed to purify oneself, while one could live by or with the state of T’umah, in one’s everyday life. It was not a matter of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here, but rather of spiritual states of sanctity that related to different experiences in one’s life.

If I were to write a sermon about this week’s parasha, I could continue to follow other lines of thoughts and then make a choice, start by telling a story to captivate you and then try to make sense of whatever lies on the Torah page.

This is my last contribution to the Leo Baeck Dvar Torah as a student rabbi. I leave you for now in the talented hands of my colleagues.

Chag Pessach Kasher v’Sameach

Daniela Touati LBC 5th year student

[1] One of the Rabbinic American organisations fighting for human rights

[2] Evil speech.

[3] When you would be reading this the suspense will be over!


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.