We have arrived in our
cycle of Torah readings at one that has challenged rabbis for centuries.This year, as a Jewish leap year,
splits what is usually one parashah into two.
This week, we read
Tazria, the beginning of the biblical description of how the ancient priests
dealt with community members who could possibly be diagnosed with what we now
call Hansen's disease, otherwise known as
leprosy (many suggest that leprosy had not yet "arrived" in the Middle East; Robert Alter uses the term "skin blanch"). Next
week, the portion Metzora will complete this involved set of standards for
examination, possible quarantine, and eventual restoration to the community.
In his Torah commentary,
Richard Elliot Friedman focused on what this section really means. While it may appear to have put
the Kohein in the role of doctor, that was not the case. The rabbis reinterpreted the word
for leprosy, METZORA, to read MOTZI SHEIM RA, one who brings out an evil word -
that is, gossip. That made for interesting commentary, but this section had
nothing to do with gossip or with a disease caused by bad behavior.
It just was what it was - a
situation in which the priest had to make a distinction between what was pure
and what was impure, especially as it related to a person being eligible to
take part in ritual and communal life.
As I considered this
issue of purity and impurity and how it relates to our lives today, my thoughts
wandered to the recent case of the Grand Junction, Colorado Charter School,
Caprock Academy, which applied one of its grooming rules to a student based on
surface considerations rather than getting at the heart of the matter. First, we should hear what their school
rules say about the hair of female students: "Should be neatly combed or
styled. No shaved heads. Hair accessories must be red, white, navy, black or
brown. Neat barrettes and headbands...are permissible. Hair should not be
arranged or colored so as to draw undue attention to the student. Hair must be
natural looking and conservative in its color. Radical changes in hair color
during the school year are unacceptable."
A school has a
right to set such rules and to apply them. Yet, unexpected exceptions can arise.
9 year old Delaney
Clement, a student at Caprock Academy, recently had her head shaved as she
prepared to begin chemotherapy.
Another student, Kamryn Renfrom, decided to shave her head in solidarity
with her good friend Delaney, so that Delaney wouldn't feel alone.
At first, the school
decided that Kamryn had violated the school grooming rules. That was the decision this past Monday.
Kamryn was prohibited from
attending school until her hair grew back. On Tuesday, the charter school board met again and, on
a 3-1 vote, reinstated Kamryn. The
board members noted that they were making an exception in this case due to
extenuating circumstances. The board member who voted no was
afraid of setting an exceedingly lenient precedent for the application of
school rules in the future.
We can applaud the
school board for exhibiting some eventual wisdom. On a scale of pure to impure, it was not just Kamryn's
appearance that would make the difference. It was her motivation as well. What appeared to be intentional
defiance of school will was actually a case of compassion and friendship. In the end, this story gained
national exposure. This comes at a
time when some of my rabbinic colleagues are preparing to shave their heads to
raise funds for the St. Baldrick's Foundation next week during the Central
Conference of American Rabbis convention.
They are doing so to honor the memory of Sam Sommer, a child of two of
our colleagues who died of cancer this past December. These rabbis - and Kamryn - hope that their actions
and pure motives will bring healing as they raise awareness related to cancer
patients and highlight the need for more research.
Even if the ancient rabbis
may have missed the point of this section, as claimed by Richard Elliott
Friedman, our sages used their reinterpretation of the word METZORA to link
this section to a quote in Proverbs Chapter 6, rendered so well by Rabbi Rami
“Six things cut you off
from the holy,
a seventh makes even
your soul a monster:
an arrogant manner, a
deceitful tongue, murderous thoughts,
a thieving heart, feet
eager to run after evil, a scheming mind,
and a tendency to arouse
violence in those who once lived in peace.
The bible's book of wisdom
identified, in that passage, some of the central ills within communities and
nations that can sow seeds of conflict instead of cooperation, hatred instead
If it is purity of motive
and spirit that we seek in our world, then we need to be vigilant enough to
bring healing from these ills.
So we pray:
Eternal God, heal us
from arrogance that prevents us from recognizing your image in every person.
Heal us from those who
use deceit to further their goals and help us to achieve our highest objectives
through honesty and hard work.
Heal us from murderous
thoughts that would discourage us from even attempting to get to know and
humanize people with whom we disagree.
Heal us from a thieving
heart that fails to respect boundaries and the possessions and feelings of
Heal us from the desire
to run after evil and enable us to stand up to those who would distort the
truth to further malicious intentions0.
Heal us from a scheming
mind that would seek to undo the well-being of others, and draw us near to
those who would plan in the depth of their hearts how to spread joy and inner
And heal us from those
desires that would lead us to violent thought or action, so that we will, instead,
resolve conflict with words, with a recognition of our common interests, and
with a commitment to engendering mutual understanding.
Like the ancient priests, I believe that we can tell the
difference between impure and pure.In our thoughts, in our actions, in our dealings as members of a
community, may we always apply that special wisdom that will guide us to
harmony and peace.