Friday, March 28, 2014

"Spiritual Healing" - D'var Torah - Parashat Tazria - March 28, 2014

      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 Shapiro:
“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 of hope.
    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 others.
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 strength.
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.  

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