The Resilient House: Sermon Delivered at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, April 24, 2015

Thank you for inviting me here to JRC. I very much appreciate this opportunity to be together, learn about each other, and learn from each other.

Tonight and tomorrow, in synagogues around the world, Rabbis will be ascending their pulpits and speaking out on the great issues of the day. Either that, or they will be reviewing the latest book or movie of Jewish interest. Or perhaps they will speak about their recent trip to Israel or Cuba or Boca. In short, they will be speaking about anything and everything, just as long as they don’t have to talk about this week’s Torah portion!

This week’s parsha is the never popular double portion Tazria-Metzora. Tazria and Metzora deal with various problematic conditions the ancient Levites thought made people and things tamei (impure). These included certain bodily discharges, and tza-ra-at, an outbreak of discoloration or spots, mold or fungus on people and things. Tza-ra-at of the skin is usually translated as “the plague of leprosy,” but it was probably closer to the heartbreak of psoriasis. If I had to sum up the overall subject of these portions, I would say that they are about things that make you say “yuck” and then want to change the subject.

But these categories, impure and pure, tamei and tahor, unclean and clean are about more, much more, than just the yuck factor. Rabbis and anthropologists suggest that what was designated as pure was what affirmed you in the realm of life, and gave you access to the God of life, while what was impure dragged you into the liminal realm of death and alienation.

That’s why these portions intrigue me. It’s not that I am a dermatologist, a fan of fungi, or preserver of precious bodily fluids. It’s that I want to learn, not from the Torah’s content per se but from its processes and underlying values, the ways our Biblical ancestors faced the messy, the scary, the painful and the disappointing.  When they were dragged into the realm of death, how did they return to the realm of life?  How did they confront, cope, and continue in life affirming ways?

You see, in a sense, the meta-message of Tazria-Metzora can be seen as resilience – the ability to respond in life-affirming, positive ways when the beset by the messiness which sometimes plague our bodies, our homes, our communities, and the deepest recesses of our souls.

So for instance, let’s take a quick look at what was going on in Leviticus 14, verses 33-38. These verses directed the Israelites what to do when first they found something like tzaraat growing on the walls of their home.

With your permission, I want to turn the clock back just a couple of thousand years and play out how that worked. Picture this if you will: we are all living together as a family in this lovely stone and plaster communal home right on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Every night, we look up towards the Holy Temple. Awed by the distant glow of the sacrificial fire, we understand the beauty of holiness!

One day, as we are sitting down to break pita, one of you looks around and says, “Did anyone else notice that weird stuff growing on the wall over there? Anyone know what that is?” Naturally, we are all sure of what it is. We know precisely what it is.  It’s just that each of us thinks it is something different.  And because we are Israelites, we argue about it. Finally, some genius at the end of the table is able to break through the commotion and says, “Hey, let’s see what the Torah has to say about this!”  So we take out our pocket Torah scrolls and sure enough, we find exactly what Adonai told Moshe and Aharon to do in situations like this. It begins with verse 34 of chapter 14. As we read, as we listen, each of us waits to hear from all the rest, “OK, you were right.”

We read verses 34-35: כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן Thus says God: When you have come into the land of Canaan…, and I put an outbreak of tzara’at in a house, [At this point, everyone is thinking “gee, thanks God” but nobody says it.] the owner of the house should come to the Kohen and say, כְּנֶגַע, נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת “It seems to me that there is something like a plague in the house.”

That calms us down a bit and we exhale. We don’t have to agree as to what it is exactly; we just say that it seems to us there is something there. A thousand years later, Rashi and others will look at this verse and say it is about humility. It’s about admitting we don’t know, or if we really do know, humbly holding back in the presence of the priest.  You might be right or you might be right, but each of us has to realize that there may be various ways of seeing the same thing, different perspectives to consider. We admit that what may seem to be one thing could in fact be something very different. Perception may not be reality, really.

It’s funny, as soon as we each back away from the illusion of certainty, we see each other in a little different light. We all want the same thing. We want our house to stand. We want the life within it to continue. We want our family to endure. So together, arm in arm, kumbaya, we walk down the road to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kohen and knock on the door.

When Kohen comes to the door, we explain that we have a growing problem but are not sure what it is or how to deal with it. Immediately he goes into action. He tells us, “I am going to come by to take a look, but before I do, וּפִנּוּ אֶת-הַבַּיִת   take everything out of the house!”

Say what? Is that really necessary?

But he explains and it makes sense. “Take everything that has not been affected and make sure you preserve that.  ולֹא יִטְמָא V’LO YITMAH – so that what is pure is protected from the impure. You’ll tackle what, if anything, curses the house, but not before lifting up what blesses it. Go home and find, affirm, and appreciate the good that you have.”

So we do. Before Mr. Kohen comes to assess what we are dealing with on the wall, we go through out home and identify what is important to preserve and protect.  We don’t want the good we have – or the good we are – to be compromised as we identify and work on that which needs to be made better. It’s that whole baby and bath water thing, making sure that as we examine that which is not life-affirming, we appreciate, truly appreciate, what we have and what we are together that is.

Only when the pure is secure, Mr. Kohen comes into the house and examines the strange growth.  Is it striped or smooth?  He looks to discern if it just on the surface, or does it reflect something deeper. What color is it – adamdamot, reddish?  Maybe y’rakrakot – greenish? (Back then, a green building meant something different.) He is honest and tells it like it is, even as he admits the limits of his understanding.

Kohen then reads verse 38 and it’s not what we want to hear: “Then the Kohen shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and quarantine the house seven days.” “Step away,” he tells us. “Everybody out!”

“Excuse us?” we say. “Isn’t that a big drastic?”

Again we are not thrilled, but the priest urges us to be patient.  “Trust me,” he says. “You need some time, some distance, some perspective, to best understand what the next steps might be. You need time to examine it. Maybe with time you will discover it’s not as bad as you think. Maybe it will simply pass. That’s part of discernment as well. If we come back after a week and see that it is still there and growing, we’ll deal with it. Sure,” he says,” if it remains a persistent plague, we may have to tear down the house, but it’s not going to come to that, because you are going to give it the care that it needs. Your foundation is strong, your family is committed to a common vision, and your home is a place of life. You have already identified what is good and what is precious to you. Work together,” he tells us, “and you will get through this!”

And in saying that, Kohen gives us a wondrous priestly blessing: hope. It’s not the hope that tells us just to close our eyes and everything will be just fine. It’s the hope that comes from knowing that whatever may come our way, we will have the ability to deal with it in life affirming ways. And that is what we call resilience!

That’s why, friends, I think that Tazria/Metzora is not just about fluids, and fungi and fun stuff like that.  It also suggests tools of resilience: humility, appreciation, honesty, patience, trust, community. For me, our greatest tool is hope, hope substantiated by the hard work we are willing to do in pursuit of our common vision.  With hope, our house is strong! With hope, our foundation is firm! With hope, our future is as bright as we can dream it to be! Hope takes work, but with the commitment to work together, our house will be strong and remain strong for generations to come!

Kayn y’hi ratzon! May this be God’s will, and ours as well!

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