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Parashat Tazria-Metzora: The burden and gift of empathy

For the past eight years, I have led a study group for physicians from my congregation. Every few months, we get together for good food, some wine (OK, lots of wine) and to discuss issues like medical ethics.

About three years ago, several of the sessions clustered on the idea of whether doctors could have empathy toward their patients. As one of the doctors wrote to me: “Can you (should you) act empathic when you don’t feel it? Is it okay not to feel it? How can you feel it in every encounter when you see 25 patients, one after the next, day after day?”

This week’s double portion, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, very subtly raises these same questions. Of all the weekly readings, these two in the book of Leviticus are by far the most medical, dealing with topics like afterbirth, seminal discharges, skin eruptions, burns and sores. How do we make sense of these conditions? How do the rabbis understand them?

To begin, it is necessary to make an apology. For hundreds of years, religious scholars and rabbis have associated the theology of sin and guilt with that of disease. Often, in order to make a moral point about gossip or some other social ill, rabbis link this section in Leviticus with the text in Deuteronomy where Miriam criticizes Moses and then is struck by a skin eruption. Their conclusion tells us that to be declared tameh (literally unclean) is the same as being unfit ethically. To be sick is to be wrong, and to be debilitated makes you an abomination to both your fellow human beings and to God.

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

One does not have to go far to see the danger in this thinking. How many would-be mothers are made to feel that something is morally wrong with them if they cannot bear children? How many people who have cancer feel that it’s a punishment for some unknowable crime?

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

Learning with my congregation’s doctors made it clear to me that they share much with the ancient priests of Israel, actually. The priests of our far-reaching past were twice burdened, first by God to be the caretaker of the Divine-human connection through the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and again by the people themselves, who presented to the priest all manner of physical ailment. The same is true for the doctor who embodies the knowledge of science and then takes that knowledge and encounters real people.

Where they intersect the most is in the realm of human connection, the critical role of empathy. The parallels between doctoring and priestly work, the heady stuff of bearing witness to the most profound moments of human suffering, find their greatest expression in the empathic need for mutual recognition.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin meaning “to suffer.” The patient suffers and wants to be seen as a validated person in the eyes of the sacred authority. The priest/doctor can give validation through empathy, while feeling that they have been given a gift by being cum pati, with those who suffer, for their own life has been validated as consequential. Such is the dual gift-giving of being in service to one another and why the rabbis caution us to treat the sick with dignity and honor, for it is at the foot of their bed when we visit with care and love that God’s presence resides (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 335).

Lastly, we know from Leviticus itself what role empathy plays out in the act of holiness. The central theme of the Holiness Code, found a few chapters later, is that empathy itself leads to holiness. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is one of the great cornerstones of Western morality.

This plays out nicely with those who have been healed from their sickness. After the priest sees them and welcomes them back to the community, a sacrificial rite is performed. The patient is brought to the literal center of the community and anointed in the same manner with the same rituals that anoint the High Priest over the people. Both priest and patient are bound together in this ritual of mutuality.

The ethical stance on sickness found in our Torah is not to see how the ill are immoral, but how those who suffer illness provoke us to become more moral by responding to their suffering in the same manner as the priest — with empathy, patience and care. 

Torah portion: Beware of words

In Judaism, words are holy and sacred. The world was created by Divine speech, teaches us the opening book of the Pentateuch; the Hebrew alphabet constitutes the spiritual DNA of the cosmos, according to the midrash.

In the opening paragraph of the Shema, we find no fewer than three allusions to the centrality of words and speech in our tradition: “The words which I command you this day … Speak them at home and on the road … and write them on your doorposts.”

The Ten Commandments, the most formative and foundational Jewish text, is actually called in Hebrew “The Ten Divine Utterances/Speeches.” And in the words of German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the Torah itself is “the portable home of the Jewish people.” Its texts have kept us cohesive as a people for some two millennia in the absence of political and territorial sovereignty.

So words are big in Jewish spirituality. So much so that the concluding book of the Torah is actually called “Words” (Deuteronomy’s title in Hebrew is “Devarim”). 

But the Torah also is keenly aware of the fact that words are not only a force for good in the world. They can be abused, misused and harnessed to facilitate and legitimize the greatest monstrosities and atrocities known to man. 

Notice that the greatest rabbi in Jewish history, Moshe Rabeinu, was not a man of words at all. On the contrary, Moses pleads before God, and reiterates time and again, “Lo eesh devarim anochi” (“I am not a man of words”). Rather, insists Moses in all earnestness, I am a man who is “aral sefatayim” (“of uncircumcised lips”), meaning — I, Moses, am no great orator. 

How striking it is that the Jewish people had a man devoid of verbal virtuosity as its greatest and choicest of leaders. I believe that by electing Moses as Judaism’s greatest spiritual figure, the Torah is conveying to us something profound, essential — and highly counterintuitive — about the duality of words and speech as double-edged swords.

Famously, the sages caution us that vile speech is tantamount to shedding blood, to character assassination. This caution about the potential corrupting usage of words offers a grave warning relevant to our most recent history. 

In the 20th century, some of Europe’s greatest minds and intellectuals used words as a means to justify radical evil. For example, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was an avid supporter of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and endorsed Stalin’s leadership for more than a decade between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. And remember that it was Stalin who sent to their deaths some 20 million Soviets alone by deporting them to the Soviet concentration camps — the Gulags.

Another master of words, Martin Heidegger of Germany, also became an ardent supporter of a diabolical totalitarian regime, National Socialism. As the rector of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger had no qualms about expelling all the Jewish students and faculty from the academic institution, and would conclude his professorial addresses by passionately exclaiming, “Heil Hitler.” 

In addition to Sartre and Heidegger, there were at least another half a dozen leading European writers and scholars who espoused Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. And more recently, Michel Foucault, arguably France’s most original thinker in the postwar era, enthusiastically endorsed and hailed the Islamic Revolution in Iran of the late 1970s.

To many, this “betrayal of the intellectuals,” the world’s greatest minds and thinkers who were expected by mainstream Europeans to serve as an intellectual protective shield, to harness their written and verbal virtuosity and genius, in order to serve humanity as voices of humanism, conscience and compassion, was shocking and inexplicable. By the end of the 20th century, humanity learned a bitter and frightful lesson: Words and thoughts are a double-edged sword, and words can be misused and abused in the most atrocious and dehumanizing of ways. 

Which brings us, finally, to a central theme and leitmotif in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, as well in the succeeding parasha of Metzora.

The rabbinic commentators expound upon the skin ailment known in the Torah as tzara’at, to imply that an individual who was afflicted by this gruesome condition was suffering on account of an abuse of the God-given power of words and speech. Those who violate language, implies the Torah, are culpable of a grave offense against God and man. 

Therefore, asserts the Torah, such individuals are sanctioned by being temporarily removed from the bounds of normative society in order to heal and cleanse themselves, in order to spend a significant amount of time in reflection and contemplation and in thorough self-scrutiny and methodic soul-searching, such that they can later return to the public domain as constructive and positive members of society. 

So let us not be unconditionally magnetized and mesmerized by the seductive splendor of formidable rhetoric. Let us not only marvel at the aesthetic and intellectual glow of sublime oratory. Let us also scrutinize the underlying message of words and speech. 

This is a timeless lesson from this Torah portion, one which humanity learned the hard way, all too often, and all too tragically, during the volatile upheavals of the 20th century. Let us not repeat this mistake, be it on the political or inter-personal level. Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.

Cry of the Leper

What do we do with the things that frighten us most? Sometimes we have the will to overcome that which we wish we could run from, choosing not to hide away in the safety of our own bubble. We have the courage to face the demons, either personal or communal; we stare down the fear and come out the better for it.

But too often, when we are afraid of something, be it a person, an idea, a change, an illness or a truth we can’t face, we create real or imaginary barriers that seemingly protect us from that fear — until they don’t.

There comes a time, for each of us, when we stand face to face with our demons; it is in our response to this challenge that we often see some of the more beautiful moments in human life. In this week’s parsha, Tazria, we find one of those opportunities.

Tazria is about people and illness that frighten us the most: lepers and nasty skin afflictions.

Throughout our human history, lepers, and those with physical afflictions that make them appear scary and different, have been treated with disdain and fear — the wretched of the earth. Yet within this parsha of purification rites, we find a line that invites us into the deeper realm of what is possible, into a sod, a more hidden meaning of Torah.

Once a person is deemed by the priest to have leprosy, the Torah says he must run through the community screaming, “Impure, impure!” (Leviticus 13:45). On the face of it, this seems to be quite embarrassing and demeaning for the person, as they are forced to announce their illness in such a public way.

The Talmud, in Moed Katan 5a, articulates two opinions on why a person must scream out. Rabbi Abahu says that the leper calls out to warn the community of his illness, thereby advising us to stay away from him. And at times, this is natural and normal, for we all must protect ourselves and our communities from illnesses that threaten our health. But the Talmud responds with another interpretation of the calling out: the leper is to call out in order to arouse sympathy and mercy from the community. Twice the leper says tamei (impure), such that we are presented with two options for response: fear/protection and sympathy/mercy.

I believe the Talmud is instructing us to do both, for doing one without the other, in either direction, will leave us vulnerable. Fear without sympathy leaves us physically safe but spiritually and morally stricken; sympathy without protection threatens our very lives.

Together, we must find a way to respond to the greatest fears of our time, the greatest illnesses our of communities and the world at large, with this two-fold manifesto. Be it HIV/AIDS, war, genocide, poverty, racism, sexism, hate, vengeance or anything else we fear, we must all hear the cry of “impure, impure,” recognize that there is an affliction and treat it. Fear cannot stop us and mercy cannot blind us; rather by combining the two we can find a holy path to healing and repair.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh teaches that part of our job is to sometimes “stand apart from the community [like the priests], to signal when there is an outbreak of spiritual/moral/interpersonal/communal affliction, to intervene before the contaminant can spread, and to declare when the community has restored itself.” Rabbi Hirsh was speaking to rabbis when he said this, but I think it applies to each one of us. We each have the responsibility to recognize affliction and try to treat it. We cannot run away and say “that doesn’t affect me,” or “I am too afraid to deal with this.” There are needy voices calling out to us from all corners of the earth, from all corners of our own community; the Torah is teaching us this week that we must answer those calls.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at