Thursday, 04 Apr 2019

Written by Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen

 What do you see?


What do you see? [1]

The text before us is perplexing, confusing, offensive, irrelevant and of its time.  Is that your response to our Torah portion this week?  The parashah Tazria introduces us to the sacrifices a new mother must make after the birth of her child after a period of time of uncleanliness (a period which is longer for a daughter than a son).  We also learn of what to do if someone presents with a disease (tzaarat) on themselves or on their garments or walls of their house.

What do you see?

Can you see beyond the literal – peshat – meaning of this text?  Can you make the text live for you and become relevant?

One scholar (David Hoffman quoted by Nechama Leibowitz) states that the sacrifice of a dove, to be brought by the new mother, was a symbol of homesickness.  She had been unable to attend the Temple so when she was allowed back into her community she used the symbol of the dove to mark her exclusion and her loss.

We hear in our text the fear of the Israelites about birth and disease.  We see their need to name, contain, ritualize and thus deal with their real and painful anxieties.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner often asks, in meetings with others, what is the distress?  What is really going on?  What’s lurking beneath the surface?  As readers of the Torah we are tasked with asking these questions of our texts but also of ourselves when we are in relation to others.  What is going on for them and what is going on for us?  Can we see the distress?  What do you see?

This portion confronts us with the fact that there is always a hidden reality to what we encounter.  Whoever and whatever we meet requires investigation, examination and reflection.  We never know what is going on behind closed doors.  We are always situated in and products of our own experience.  We bring that to the Torah as we read it and as we interact with others.

Our communities are not homogenous entities but collections of individuals.  Individuals each with deep, textured, rich and varied experiences and backgrounds.  We each get moved, annoyed, angered by different circumstances, types of people and experiences.  In order to create communities with lasting and strong relationships we have to recognize that we are all individuals.  We have to keep asking of ourselves, and others, ‘what do you see?’  Can you see beyond the behaviour of the person in front of you?  Can you see why they might be acting ‘like that’?  Are you able to empathise with them?

The philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote in ‘Between Man and Man’ that, “Each of us is encased in an armour which we soon, out of familiarity, no longer notice…there are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul to sensibility”.  As Buber states, “the waves of the aether roar on always, but for most of the time we have turned off our receivers”.

We carry our armour with us at all times, until those moments when it is broken open.

I have an example of when I saw something outstanding in someone else which I had initially been afraid of.  Let me explain.  I have a neighbor in our block of flats.  He’s an elderly man from Italy.  I often chat to him as I bump into him regularly.  We were, typically, talking about soaring house prices in London.  I began to talk about homelessness and the fact that many homeless people worked but simply could not afford rent.  As I got more passionate I began to mention my synagogue’s winter night shelter.  However, I paused just before I mentioned the word ‘synagogue’ because, for some reason, I wasn’t sure of the reaction I would get.  I continued to talk about the shelter and wondered what my neighbor would say.  Straight away he asked me whether I was Jewish.  ‘I am’, I answered.  My defences were up – I could only see the potential danger in this conversation.

He, Adolfo, continued to tell me the story of how his family, when he was around 6 or 7 years old, sheltered a Jewish family on their farm.  He told me the details of how he would bring the insulin that the Professor’s wife needed.  He had to walk across the wood to get to them, with his family, as they were living on the edge of their land.  He had to wear boots to avoid the snakes in that area.  He told me their names.  He told me that whenever he hears a dog barking he is anxious as he thinks of the fascists.  He looked perplexed when I asked him why his family sheltered, at such a great risk, this Jewish family.  He said, it was just what we did.

I was blown away and was confronted with the true reality before us – we are more than we seem.  The adage, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ never felt more apt.

Shema, the prayer we say on a daily basis, repeatedly, and most importantly on our death bed starts with the command to hear – to pay attention – Shema.  The second word, Israel, literally means ‘one who struggles’.  As Rabbi Howard Cooper teaches – the command is – ‘Pay attention one who struggles’.  Listen to yourself and to others – see what others cannot see and open your eyes.  Be content in the struggle – that there are hidden and public transcripts in our texts and in our relationships with others.  Things are never simple but always complex.  Our word for world – olam – can also be understood to mean ‘a place of concealment’.

As seekers we must always ask ourselves – what is the distress?  What do you see?

Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen


[1] This question was posed to us during a theology lesson with Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry in our second year.  We were handed a blank piece of paper, and a pencil on which was stamped ‘what do you see?’

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