“When Life Imitates Art”

“When Life Imitates Art”

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

When life imitates art, we should learn from it. This week, art comes from the Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. It’s the Leviticus portion that addresses ills such as bodily emissions and skin afflictions. According to Torah, the obligation of the affected person was to make himself known to the community. He called out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev. 13:45). The metzora was isolated, feared, and repulsed. Later translators called the malady, leprosy, because lepers were treated similarly long before it was better-known as Hansen’s Disease and treated appropriately.

The rabbis of the Midrash didn’t know English; they didn’t know the word, leprosy. They knew Hebrew, and their lesson came from insights into how we should read the word, “metzora.” They taught, “Metz,” is short for “motzi,” as in “brings forth” (like the blessing for bread that thanks God for bringing forth bread from the earth); “Ra” means evil, and by bringing forth evil, he desecrates God’s name (Shem). The rabbis concluded that the metzora, “motzi (Shem) ra,” is the one who gives currency to an evil report and denies the entire Torah. What is the evil that could do all this and render a person a so-called “leper” in his community?

The only sin so heinous that it could cause a person to be isolated from the community, violate the entire Torah, and desecrate God’s name, is a deed that can’t be taken back, cleaned up, or resolved. To the rabbis, this was nothing but rumors, hearsay and gossip.

Folk stories artistically illuminate their point. In one tale, the town yenta (gossip) learned from her rabbi, who tossed feathers into the wind to demonstrate how far her rumors traveled aloft, just how difficult it was to retrieve them all, too. We’re left to conclude that the yenta learned her lesson.

Today, the lesson is still true. The metzora isn’t the victim of COVID-19; the real metzora is the one who gives currency to an evil report and denies the whole Torah, on which we rely. Thus, the metzora is anyone who spreads conspiracy theories about COVID-19, promotes false information for personal gain, contributes to the misunderstanding of innocent people, or promotes fear instead of hope. He is a metzora who should be marginalized for the sake of calm and hope in the midst of a pandemic.

In Leviticus, when the metzora returned to the community, he brought a “guilt” offering. It provided evidence of his remorse, and his ability to take up a new role in the community. Presumably, it would be a role that demonstrated honesty, trustworthiness, and humility. The rabbis taught from Psalm 34, “Keep your tongue from evil; depart from evil and do good.” It’s that simple. To be a meaningful part of a community, even one that is hurting, requires nothing more than spending your day speaking helpful words and doing good deeds.

That Leviticus is old is just a rumor. Leviticus is art, and we are living proof of its ability to guide us even now.