28 Mar 2014

Tazria-HaHodesh 5774: Alone Time

Tazria-HaHodesh 5774: Alone Time
Human beings have always sought ways to connect with each other. We are social animals who have a vital need for interaction. Today, we are more connected with each other than ever before. Whether it be through phone calls, emails, texts, tweets or snapchats, the modern world is heavily interwoven, and we incessantly exchange thoughts and information. At our most fundamental level, we are here for love and belonging. Because these feelings are so central to our being, heartbreak, exclusion and disconnect are among our most excruciating pains. It is why we find it so devastating when, through our various modes of interaction, we are hurt by someone’s slight or rejection. Perashat Tazria deals with our responsibilities as social beings and how we are to fix the breakdowns in our modes of interaction when they go wrong.

We are taught that the entirety of Torah is a means for fostering a caring society.
Rabbi Akiva famously said, the greatest principle in all of Torah is the command to Love your neighbor as yourself. (Bereshit Rabba, 24) When a certain individual asked Hillel the Elder to teach him the entire Torah at once, he simply replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your friend. All else [in Torah] is merely commentary. Go study!” (Shabbat, 31a)

It is intriguing, then, to read this week that the prescription given to an individual who was diagnosed with sara’at[1] was excommunication.  ‘He shall sit alone, outside the camp is his dwelling.’ (13:46) Excommunication was not meant as a quarantine to contain and control an outbreak, for sara’at is not contagious.[2] Instead, the removal of the individual from the camp was a rehabilitative measure that aimed at addressing the afflicted person’s damaging social behaviors. Essentially, the person was placed in a solitary setting because something was wrong with this person’s interaction with society.[3]

Although sara’at no longer manifests among us and hasn’t for two thousand years, the lesson of sara’at still stands prominently for us in Torah. As human beings, our relationships are not conveniences but vital and essential foundations of our lives. Therefore, when we sabotage them by acting selfishly, by speaking about others negatively, by forgetting what we have enjoyed from others who have helped build us up, by disregarding, even minutely, those who fill our lives with meaning, we tamper with the very fabric of society. At first, it is ever so subtle, but actions are mimicked and replicated, styles of speech are adopted and gradually societies can become cold and unwelcoming. Like the sara’at, it begins small, but it spreads on the skin and that is the sign that deterioration has begun.[4]

Sara’at was meant to nip this danger in the bud and to signal and call our attention to the initial stages of a breakdown. When it emerged, the person was attended to by a kohen and sent to be alone and experience life alone so that his or her relationships might be valued on return. Away from society one could again recall the value of society and gain respect for the care necessary in cultivating healthy relationships. The process of sara’at promoted conscious and genuine interpersonal living and preserved the desire for connection in our hearts. While we do not have sara’at today, it stands in Torah as a lesson for all time.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Commonly mistranslated as leprosy. A condition in which one’s skin, garment, or home showed a particular type of irregular discoloration. A kohen would examine and check for malignancy, in which case it would be declared sara’at  and the person would exit the camp and live in isolation until it subsided.

[2] The Torah suggests removal of exposed items from the home before sealing! (14:36)

[3] Rashi writes that slander was the prominent cause. (13:45)

[4] 13:51; 13:52; 14:44.