The following is a sermon delivered on April 21st, 2023 at the Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio.
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah, is, for lack of a better term, kinda gross. From scaley skin disease to erectile emissions to ritual purity after birth, we are reading a whole lot of detail about how we are supposed to deal with bodily functions and oozing. It is handled in the way you’d expect from Leviticus; highly clinical and detail oriented. But it’s worth noting how uncomfortable some of you might have been hearing the word “erectile” in the synagogue; those aren’t my words…that’s Torah for you.
Why is it that the Torah goes into such gooey detail about these conversations? Amidst all of the “you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy” and “build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you,” we get a detailed dermatological examination of rashes and abrasions. There might be some good biology in here, but where is the sanctity I look for from my sacred texts?
As I was reading though the portion this week, one line jumped out at me. In Leviticus 13:18-19, we read, “When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, the person shall report to the priest.” Did you catch that? If a person experiences a medical oddity, it is their responsibility to seek out the guidance of their priest.
This does NOT mean you should go show your rashes to your rabbis. (As a matter of fact, please DON’T do this…) But I can’t help but notice the emotional maturity this demands. First, it requires that a person experiencing something strange with their body go to their spiritual leader for guidance. That requires immense courage, integrity, and bravery to be willing to be that open with another person, let alone someone we consider holy. But it also requires that the priest be willing to accept this information openly, with compassion, kindness, and decorum. If you want powerful role modeling from Torah, there it is: in order for us to keep ourselves and our community healthy and safe, we need to be open and honest about what we’re experiencing, and we need to support one another’s openness and honesty with love.
Imagine a world where we were willing to accept these kinds of conversations with integrity and grace. How much embarrassment could we eliminate if we made it so that we could speak honestly about the normal things that are part of being human? How much angst and fear we could eliminate by sharing, with young people especially, what to expect when we go through normal but no less jarring changes? How much suffering and death could we avoid if we could speak openly about the need for mammograms, testicular exams, and colonoscopies?
This isn’t exactly what is being modeled for us in the public sphere. Last month, Florida put forward a “Don’t Say Period” bill that would try to restrict further reproductive education in schools, as if mentioning menstruation in a classroom would lead to spontaneous eroticism. Now, I know that Florida is kind of like the Leviticus of America; it’s in there, and we should probably talk about it, but is has a tendency to make us uncomfortable and embarrassed. But if our Bible is willing to speak opening about the realities of childbirth, menstruation, and bodily functions, what exactly are we afraid of?
The answer is that it takes strength and kindness to support someone in moments that make us uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of communities tonight that are going to avoid talking about Tazria-Metzorah because it doesn’t feel “Temple appropriate.” But that is exactly what this portion has to teach us; instead of being afraid of our bodies, we can turn to our community, to those with knowledge and bedside manner, in order that we not feel quite so alone in the process of being human.
One of the most powerful parts of belonging to a Jewish community is the opportunity to be seen as a whole person. We try to make people feel like they don’t have to pretend in front of us, that they can be organic and authentic and real. But that can sometimes be uncomfortable. Sometimes, as we’ve seen on the internet, it is so much more comfortable and easy to remain anonymous, to hide behind a keyboard and to curate the version of yourself that you share. But as much as intimacy might be intimidating, this week’s lesson teaches us that we owe it to ourselves and to our community to put aside our fear of judgement, and instead allow others to support us in all of the areas of real life. This doesn’t have to be biological; again, I can’t stress enough how much I DON’T want you showing me your rash, because I have no dermatological wisdom to share. But there are so many other areas of taboo that could be well-cared-for, if only we were willing to be open and honest. Maybe you’re going through a rough patch in your relationship and could really use someone to talk to. Your Jewish community is here for you. Maybe you’re going through a transition that is making you feel overwhelmed and isolated? Your community is here for you. Maybe you feel embarrassed that you haven’t been around as much as you’d like, but you’re having trouble keeping your head above water? We don’t care; we’re just happy you’re here now. And we are here to talk transparently and compassionately about whatever areas we might be helpful.
May we notice and acknowledge the discomfort we feel, and may we be surrounded by those who are willing to be with us anyway, no matter the conditions. Because in a world where we are constantly feeling judged, maybe this is the one place you should feel completely at peace.