Who are the lepers? Dvar Torah on Tazria-Metzorah -- Posted by hazzanmenes
Who are the lepers? Who are the ones who are kept outside the gates of the city? The gates open both ways - the ones on the fringe were once inside, and those inside will one day be the lepers.
On Pesach we remind ourselves that we were slaves in Egypt, that we were the oppressed. But this week we must be reminded that we are the lepers. From the Diaspora until our generation, we have been kept outside of the gates of the city. Now, when times are good, or when we are in control, we forget. We think we are the ones who know, who control our lives. We forget that we were the ones on the fringe, outside the gates, without access to the king.
We are given a hint as to the reason for leprosy, metzora, in Midrash Rabbah for Vayikra:
There are six things which the Lord hateth, yea, seven which are an abomination unto Him (Prov. VI, 16). ... And these are they [viz. the seven]: (i) Haughty eyes, (ii) A Iying tongue, and (iii) Hands that shed innocent blood; (iv) A heart that deviseth wicked thoughts, (v) Feet that are swift in running to evil; (vi) A false witness that breatheth out lies, and (vii) He that soweth discord among brethren (ib. 17 ff.).R. Johanan said: All these are punished by leprosy. ... Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, because they were proud of their tall stature,3 and walked arrogantly;
We also forget that it is the leper, the one on the fringe, outside of mainstream, the one who has been brought low,
who often knows the truth. The outsider sometimes has a freedom not allowed within the gates. The leper can look in and challenge the accepted beliefs. The leper can move to the other side and infiltrate who might have been the enemy. The lepers have nothing to lose. We were the lepers.
The haftarah for metzorah describes those lepers on the fringe, outside the gates. It is not suggesting that they shouldn't be outside the gates, but it does show that those lepers see some things that the citizens cannot. They can enter into the enemy camp. They can find food. They can help, they are not garbage.
Who else is on the fringe, outside the gates? As we learn from Parashat Chukat, the unclean, those awaiting purification, must wait outside the gates. Are they "bad", are they less than those in the gates? No. But they have yet to be assimilated. They have had experiences that separate them from the populace. They have come in contact with the dead. They actually know things that those in the city don't. As exiles, we were kept outside the gates, not allowed to take part in the decisions, but we could move freely in the vast limbic system of society. We could travel, and recognize other lepers. We could see the folly of the governments. We could see the oppression of the minorities - because we were of them. Who else do we know from the Tanakh who saw the truth from outside the gates? Mordechai. He could see what even Esther could not. In the haftarah, the lepers tell the gatekeepers what they see in the Aramean camp: that it is deserted, with all of their food and belongings intact. But the gatekeepers do not believe them, and so the king does not trust what they have done. However, their report matches the prophesy of the abundance of food.
Those of us in the gates try to ignore the lepers, the ones outside the gates. We fear them, as though we might become impure. They challenge us because they see a different truth.
When i was in cameroon, in west africa, i had a friend, ndoumbe, who had no nose, and only a few fingers. He had been separated from society for 18 years, 18 years in a leper colony. And he was cured. Cured, because leprosy is not a death penalty. There was no stigma against him. Rather, he was honored for surviving his exile. We are told to protect those on the fringe - the widow, the orphan, the sick, the handicapped - but we often fail. we become intoxicated with life in the gates. We want to protect what we think is safe and clean.
Assimilation doesn't mean accepting the culture of the majority; it means being let into the gates.
Moses led us out of the straits into the freedom of the desert. Moses Mendelson led us out of the shtetl into the city, into the gates. Mordechai sat at the gate, and was able to see the plots against us, but once in the city, we are part of the system. We want to be in those gates - pitchu li shaare tzedek - but we can be disappointed once inside. It means losing our perspective of the fringe. The madman wants to be sane, but loses something in the transition. A lobotomy of sorts. We gain a say in our lives, but we lose our perspective. And, too often, we lose our compassion.
Some saw the creation of the State of Israel as then opening of the gates. This week we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut. Here was a place where we were finally, really, on the inside. Governed by our own laws. Surrounded by our own people. But, like the haftarah, one can be just as starved within the gates as without. Perhaps within Israel, within the gates, it is even easier to lose one's perspective.
The paradox of Judaism is the value of the other. Separation is built into Judaism, but it is never clear on which side of the wall we should be. For so long we have been on the outside that we may not know how to act when we're inside. We want to be inside, but we must retain the wisdom of being strangers.
Who here is not a leper? Within our little town of Beth Shalom, who is in the gates, and who is on the fringe? Listen to those on the fringe, for they see things that the king cannot.