Thursday, 31 Mar 2011

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

To be blunt, on the surface, this week’s Torah portion Tazria‘ isn’t very inspiring. It is concerned with suffering, primarily the suffering that derives from the condition it calls tzara‘at. This is traditionally translated as ‘leprosy’, but it bears little resemblance to the condition known by that name to modern medicine. Our doctors use the term to refer to a disease of the nerve endings that leaves patients unable to feel any sensations in the fingers, hands and other extremities. Biblical tzara‘at is a cluster of differing skin complaints. Priests were expected to diagnose tzara‘at, and proclaim the sufferers ritually unclean if the diagnosis is confirmed. This in turn led to the imposition of apparently inhumane requirements on the sufferer: ‘And the sufferer who has skin disease – his clothes shall be torn, and his head bare, and he shall put a cover over his upper lip, and shall cry out, “Unclean, unclean!”’ (Lev. 13:45). Perhaps this was due to a concern about contagion, but it does seem a bit harsh on the innocent tzara‘at sufferer. I mean ‘his clothes shall be torn’!?

I think it is fair to say that our rabbis of blessed memory were not much into the practice of the rules for dealing with tzara‘at. Instead they did their best to find moral and spiritual lessons in those regulations. For example, they asked why the patient had to declare him- or herself to be unclean in such a public (and potentially humiliating) way. Their answer, repeated five times in the Talmud, is ‘They must make their grief publicly known so that the public may pray for them’ (Shabbat 67a, Mo‘ed Katan 5a, etc.).

As I write this, our news bulletins (and my thoughts) are filled with images of devastation and destruction in Japan and Libya, with the threat of more to come. The amount of suffering, human and environmental, is beyond imagining. What is the purpose of this news? On one level, it is to sell newspapers, gain audiences for radio and television stations and internet websites. But that is a bit cynical, even for me. People seem to be fascinated by the suffering of others. Fair enough, maybe? As long as it is not just another kind of voyeurism. As long as the sheer volume of bad news doesn’t overwhelm our interest and lead to ‘news overload’ or ‘charity fatigue’. Basing myself on the Talmudic quotation above, I would say that the purpose of bad news should be to ‘make their grief publicly known so that the public may pray for them.’ And not only pray, but if possible act. Give to appropriate charities. Support relevant causes.

As religious people, it is our duty to pray for others who are suffering. As modern religious people, it is our duty to overcome news overload and fatigue, and keep up our enthusiasm for helping others in distress.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
Shir Hayim – Hampstead Reform Jewish Community
April 2011

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