A Water from the Well blog post,
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
April 17, 2021
On Shabbat we honor and celebrate the magnificence of all of Creation. In psalm 92, the psalm for Shabbat, we sing: Mah gadlu ma’asekha Yah– How awesome is Your handiwork God, how fathomless Your designs.
In our Creation story at the beginning of Genesis, Torah teaches that God transforms the world from a state of chaos/tohu vavohu into a physical world whose boundaries can be trusted. God creates light and sees that it is good, and then God “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4); and God “separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse” (Gen. 1:7), “And God said, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night. (Gen. 1:14). Separation establishes reliable boundaries between the elements and all aspects of nature in order to establish and maintain the integrity of the physical world.
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora can be understood as a unit concerned with the breaching of the boundaries of the physical body. The unit begins with a discussion of a woman’s condition after childbirth, then moves to a discussion of tzara’at (skin eruptions). This is followed by the eruption of tzara’at on clothing and homes. The section concludes with a return to reproductive eruptions in the discussion of nocturnal emissions and the menstruant. In all cases there is a physical eruption, a flowing out of vital fluids and a grave concern with contagion. In all cases the person must be separated for some time period from the community &/or the Tabernacle. And in all cases a sacrificial remedy is provided that will enable the person to rejoin the community.
The unit ends with the statement, “ You shall put the Israelites on guard against their impurity lest they die through their impurity by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.” (Lev. 15:31) Impurity, as understood within the framework of this society, can lead to death if it is unchecked. It can spread through contagion. If it ultimately spreads to the Tabernacle then the vehicle for expiation, for cleansing and restoration, will be defiled. This ultimate breach of boundaries must be avoided at all costs. A contemporary analogy might be the concern in hospitals that contagion be contained lest the hospital itself become a source of illness, thereby reversing its mission of preserving life.
Torah urges us to consider that honoring boundaries is necessary for the preservation of life. Through our experience of the pandemic we have certainly learned firsthand about contagion and the necessity of honoring physical boundaries.
In the Rabbinic mind however, the affliction of tzara’at, a skin infection likened to leprosy, was caused by a behavioral malady; another kind of eruption, namely hateful speech and gossip. The Rabbis link the word metzorah, which means the one who is afflicted with tzara’at, to the concept of motzi shem ra, to bring out the negative about a person.
Tragically, our society suffers from a proliferation of toxic outbursts in the form of hateful speech. We have also witnessed an ongoing de-volution of speech in our media and within our culture. It is noteworthy that the Rabbinic tradition makes a direct link between hurtful speech and the eruption of tzara’at. It acknowledges the power of negative and hateful speech to be infectious, contagious, and to cause real damage to the fabric of communal life.
These teachings beg the question, how might we guard against toxic eruptions that are not only physical, but emotional as well?
At times it may appear that the challenges we face in restoring respectful dialogue are nearly insurmountable. I propose that we begin such a valuable project in our own homes by raising personal awareness around our own speech such as the words we choose and tone of voice. We all have moments when we feel our hearts beat harder and our blood pressure rise from an interaction with someone. This is the moment to step back and notice. This is the moment to refrain from speech and to breathe, bringing awareness to the moment. How often do we later regret our choice of words, saying, “I didn’t mean to say that” or, “I didn’t mean it that way.”
As well let us consider what sorts of speech we allow to enter our ears from the media. Can we be more discerning in what kinds of messaging we open ourselves to receiving? Like the laws of kashrut for consumption, just discussed last week in the Torah, can we consider a kind of kashrut for what we take in through our ears?
Boundaries, when used mindfully, help to create and maintain a safe world.
Beginning with ourselves and our families and extending to our community, may we place firm inner boundaries against emotionally reactive eruptions. And may we establish mechanisms for restoring a sense of safety when these breaches inevitably occur. In this way we might work together to maintain the sanctity of our community and our relationships with one another.