August 18, 2019

The Lost Wallets of My Past – A Poem for Haftarah Tazria-Metzora by Rick Lupert

A camp empty of people
but full of silver and food

Oh the wallets I’ve left
in public places

how attractive they must
have been to the empty

pocket eyes. What lives
could have changed

save for the honesty
of finders?

Like the four men in
the north. The ones with

the heebie-jeebies on
their skin. They ate their

fill. They hid a portion
but the guilt of famine

led them home to
doubting ears, to acres

of empty stomachs.
A story vetted

The enemy had indeed
left their buildings.

I never considered my
empty wallet a prophecy.

I never considered
finders keepers

losers just accept you’ve
made a difference.

The sounds of
phantom chariots

make me give until
the hungry come home.

This is the trickle down
of my ancestors.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Tazria-Metzora

Screenshot from YouTube.


All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Congregation Dor Hadash, San Diego

The priest served as dermatologist and healer of the people. He would diagnose a mysterious rash on the skin or prescribe the necessary rituals when individuals came in contact with the natural life transitions of sex, childbirth, illness or death, rendering a person ritually impure.

These rituals reflect an important dialectic of the “I” and the “we” of the people. Every person had to look out for himself or herself, carefully scrutinizing bodily changes and coming to the priest to assess the situation. The community would then have to recognize such occurrences were part of society. Tzara’at was a scaly affliction that could occur in the stones of a house, in clothing or skin, and was highly contagious. The metzorah was in a temporary state of ritual impurity, a statement of fitness for ritual participation, not a moral condemnation.

The text is silent on the “why” of the fungus, but its inclusion in the Torah normalizes it. Only when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after criticizing Moses did the rabbis assign the affliction the cause that negative speech is a contagion that if not contained, can infiltrate the very bedrock of the community. Whatever the cause of a person’s isolation, it could happen to anyone, and it wasn’t permanent. The communal imperative to care for others is embedded in this text. No one should be isolated more than necessary — for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community. How we take care of one impacts the other.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

The rabbis of medieval times did not quite know what to make of the esoteric Torah portions of Tazria-Metzorah, which deal with ancient skin ailments. After all, what is the eternal pertinence for future Jewish generations of such a disease? Why is it in the Torah? Our sages came up with a creative twist. Namely, that the word “metzorah” carries a linguistic affinity to the Hebrew words “motzi shem rah” (the one who destroys the reputation of another person).

In the age of social media, many people are often “socially executed” without trial. People are convicted in the courts of Facebook, Twitter and Google, without due process or evidence. In the absence of legal proceedings, lives can be destroyed.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner proposes that we understand this verse in the context of the rabbinic hermeneutical principal of “midah keneged midah” (measure for measure). Those with reckless minds and hearts who linguistically shed the blood of others by globally shaming and defaming them online based merely on rumors — in the absence of viable witnesses and evidence — ought to be excommunicated from the public arena for a period of time.

The message is clear and pervasive for all of us who spend hours every day online facing an inanimate screen. Words can wound. Words can kill.Words can shame and tarnish reputations. Words can shatter lives.

We must think hard, think long and think deeply before writing something about anybody online.

Bruce Powell
de Toledo High School

The rabbis taught that “metzorah” is really a contraction for “motzi shem rah,” or one who brings the bad name. They believed that one of the punishments for lashon harah, or evil speech, was leprosy, a disease which called for one’s isolation from the community.

The rabbis also taught that “machloket b’shaym shamayim,” or disputes in the name of heaven, resulted in the uplifting of community. For example, even though the Academies of Hillel and Shammai argued continuously, all of their disputes were in the name of heaven, the result being that the children of Hillel and Shammai would continue to marry one another.

Today, I often sense that disputes in our community, whether they be in the political realm, financial realm and so forth, deteriorate into people bringing “the bad name” upon one another. These toxic conversations create social “leprosy,” thereby isolating friends and even family members from one another. They often become so heated that people are perceived of as being politically “unclean,” and thereby are no longer allowed to “dwell within the camp.”

I believe we can, as a community, end this current “plague” of political or social “leprosy.” May we bring only the “good name” upon each other; and may we continue to dwell together, to marry one another, and to eradicate isolation from our world.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar

What does it mean to dwell alone? Is it to her benefit? That she can heal and return to the camp? Or is it for others’ benefit, so that they don’t catch her leprosy? Leave aside for a moment the idea of being “unclean.” Peel away the layers of this verse (forgive me for using this analogy in a section of the Torah traditionally dealing with skin disease), and we see that its centerpiece is a person dwelling alone (badad yeshev).

More than ever, the idea of dwelling alone touches us. Those of us who don’t live alone, know increasing numbers of people who do. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 28 percent of households have just one person living in them — up from 13 percent in 1960. Some live alone by choice, but many who live alone would prefer not to live alone.

Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav’s spiritual practice of self-seclusion, or hitbodedut, comes from the same Hebrew root as badad, meaning alone. Ironically, one of the major purposes of hitbodedut is to talk to God. It raises the question: Are you ever really alone? And if you are alone, does that mean you are lonely?

Within the Jewish community, there are more single households than ever. Some wring their hands over this, but isn’t it better to celebrate the expansion of what the ideal Jewish household looks like? Cookie-cutter household configurations no longer carry the day. And besides, Reb Nahman would probably say, “Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean you are lonely.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila,
Sephardic Educational Center

There is nothing more divisive to a society than gossip and slander. Those who misuse and abuse the power of speech create divisions among people, often leading to irreparable damage.

Ancient Jewish society attributed leprosy as a physical punishment for spreading lies or rumors. The distinguishable physical blemishes all over the leper’s body were a sign that this person spoke lashon harah, and much like lashon harah is a plague upon a society, so, too, this individual with leprosy is a plague upon society.

Like all physical impurities in the Torah, there are ritual measures taken to rid the person of the impurity. But with lepers, there is one special measure that is unique to their impurity: “He (the leper) shall dwell alone.” Both the Talmud (Arachin 13b) and Rashi ask why this extra measure — banishment from the camp to “dwell alone” — is unique to the leper: “Because just as he caused separation between husbands and wives or between good friends with his lashon harah, so, too, he should experience separation from his community.”

While modern-day society no longer attributes leprosy to lashon harah, the virulent strain of gossip and slander persists in our society. We might heed the Torah’s advice and banish those who divide us with their words to “dwell alone.” Today that would simply mean shutting down their Twitter account.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Tazria-Metzora with Rabbi Alan Bright

Our guest this week is Rabbi Alan W. Bright of Shaare Zedek Congregation in Montreal. He completed his education doing Jewish Studies from London School of Jewish Studies (London) and Concordia University. He was also at the Yemin Orde and became an active member of this Youth Village.

This week’s double parashah – Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33) – features rules concerning the purity and impurity of women and the horrible disease of leprosy. Our discussion focuses on the priests’ curious attitude toward people inflicted with skin disease.



Previous Torah Talks on Tazria and Metzora:

Rabbi Elie Weinstock

Rabbi Joshua Aaronson

Rabbi Hillel Skolnik

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis


7 haiku for Parsha Tazria-Metzora by Rick Lupert (Plus a comforting video that involves potatoes)

How can a birth make
a woman unclean? When life
begins, it’s holy.

Priests with no degree
in medicine use their eyes
to divide the sick.

Road Trip! cried the man
with the discolored skin as
he left the city.

Any excuse to
shave my entire body.
Plus give me two birds.

Of course if you can’t
afford two birds, discount fowl
are available.

May have to tear down
little boxes when covered
with ticky-tacky.

In encouraging news:
if you jump in the pool, all
will be forgiven.

And here’s a friendly poem video that focuses on potatoes which I hope you’ll find comforting after the imagery in Tazria-Metzora:

New Potato by Rick Lupert

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: The burden and gift of empathy

Reuters/David W Cerny

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.