Parshat Tazria-Metzora

Torah Reading for Week of April 7-13, 2013

“Does Memory Serve Us?”
By Rabbi Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, ‘11


We are a people of memory. We remember daily in our liturgy, weekly in our Torah readings, seasonally in our holiday celebrations, yearly in our lifecycle rituals.  We remember family members, inspiring teachers, archetypal leaders. We remember personal, communal and historic events.  We remember tragedy as well as triumphs.

Of his observation of Israeli and American Jewry’s commemorations of the Shoah, Prof. Efraim Sicher wrote: “The Shoah is a shadow that won’t go away. It is indelibly inscribed in our ethnic and cultural identity.  Many of the attempts to forge a new identity and mold a collective memory now seem simplistic or have been discredited.  What exactly is the place of the Shoah in Jewish history? What is it that we are to remember? Why? What do we do with this memory?”

Jewish memory this week is a paradox.  We remember the ancient teaching of the double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, in conjunction with modern history’s tragic teaching, the Shoah:   And G-d told Moses and Aaron that when a person had a tzaraat (a swelling, rash, discoloration, scaly affection, inflammation, or burn), it was to be reported to the priest, who was to examine it to determine whether the person was clean or unclean. Unclean persons were to rend their clothes, leave their head bare, cover over their upper lips, call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” and dwell outside the camp.

Reading the parsha with the backdrop of the Shoah in my mind brings chilling associations.  With each, a person suspected of some type of impurity was reported, to be examined, and determined whether they were clean or unclean.  With each, unclean persons were to be stripped, have their heads shaved, cleansed, and removed from the community.   It is hard to read this and not have images of Mengele at Auschwitz making determinations at the selection lines; prisoners being stripped, shaved, deloused, called, “Swine!” and, in this case,  interned in a camp where “work did not make you free.”

Torah teaches that when we are not one with G-d, we experience the departure of G-d in our lives (Nachmanides, Tzaria 47).  With this parsha we are confronted with the impurities of life. The inconsistencies, the paradoxes, the ugliness, the tzaraat we do not want to confront or address in the world much less in ourselves. This is manifested in our appearance as well as our actions.

An extreme example of this was the purification ideology of Nazism.  When we avoid looking deeply into ourselves for our own inner cleaning, we project our discomfort with our own un-cleanliness outwardly onto others.  Others are dirty, disgusting, ugly, embarrassing.  Rather than face the uncomfortable inner work of purification, we focus on trying to get rid of what we do not like externally.

But this does not work.  Our inner ugliness becomes acts of ugliness in the world.  Our thoughts turn hateful, producing hateful speech and subsequent hateful actions (in the extreme, the Nazi “aktions”).  We tend to respond more to the tzaraat of actions we can see, the horrors of physical atrocities.  Yet, it is often the unseen tzaraat—the hidden anguish, the shaming, of ona’ah devarim (hurtful speech)—that has more far reaching effects:  essentially, the murder of soul. 

Shaming erodes one’s sense of self to such a degree as to literally feel the blood of life drained.  The body exists but the spirit has long departed.  It is a slow, subtle, insidious, painful death.  Our Talmudic Sages taught that this type of murder is worse than the murder of the body, as this soulless body continues to inhabit the earth and spread its disease.  It is like a cancer that by the time the damage has been detected the prognosis is questionable.  It is much more pervasive than we want to know.  And, if at all attainable, the road to healing is long and arduous. 

My mother, who was 16 when she was liberated from Auschwitz, said it was the humiliation and shame, the loss of a sense of self—along with family, home, and community—that were most devastating.   As her first born, I have witnessed this effect through the generations, from her life to mine to my children.  We, as a people, have seen this shaming repeated countless times in our history as Jews.  Shame begets shame begets wrath begets shame—a vicious perpetual cycle.  What will it take for humanity to learn these lessons?

The Shoah was a horrific crime of humankind that cries out for attention.  And, yet, it is too overwhelming for our fragile psyches to confront, much less address. But, as part of humanity, confront and address it we must. The purity laws of Torah address the challenges of living in an impure world.  Our rituals of memory call us to remember our own addictions to enslavement, and to clean out our own hametz, our hidden corners of shame.  Otherwise, as the Israelites, we will continue to wander in the desert. 

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