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One of the most compelling aspects of Torah study is that each year, as part of the annual cycle of reading the Torah from start to finish, there is always something new to see. For while the text of the Torah is canonized or fixed, the eyes with which we read and interpret our sacred text are continually changing. For example, the Torah portion about Noah may look very different to us in a year when there have been terrible floods than it would in the midst of a draught. Similarly, we may see something new when studying the story about Joseph’s interactions with his jealous brothers if we ourselves are in the midst of a fight with our siblings. The text of the Torah remains the same form year to year. But the eyes and the experiences through which we interpret that text are ever-changing. That’s the meaning behind the teaching from Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, that states,
Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. (PA CH.5)
That is especially true this year as we study a Torah portion that speaks, among other things, about how the community should respond to a plague. According to the text:
God instructs Moses and Aaron, “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the kohen, saying, `Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”‘
The portion goes on to not only address a plague on one’s house (black mold?) but also one impacting people’s health directly. How could we not read the portion differently this year than last? A year ago, the physical and spiritual health challenges described in these portions of Tazria-Metzorah, were academic. Studying them was, to a large degree, an intellectual exercise. This year it is personal to each and every one of us.
This year, we fully understand the fear our ancestors must have felt when confronted with a plague.
This year, we can relate to the confusion created by something that is unseen but terribly and negatively impactful.
This year we can appreciate our ancestor’s belief that they needed to take action, even if it meant isolating some community members for a period of time.
This year Tazria-Metzorah is a living document, and we are able to draw new, relevant lessons from it in a way that was previously impossible.
One of those lessons comes from the description the home’s owner offers the kohen/priest. He doesn’t say, “A plague has appeared upon my house,” but rather, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” The rabbis of old took note of the qualifier “something like” and observed,
“Even if he is a Torah scholar and knows for certainty that it is a plague-spot, he shall not declare outright, `It is a plague-spot,’ but `Something like a plague-spot.”‘ (Mishnah)
“I think,” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes, “that the Torah is teaching a kind of religious/intellectual humility to its followers. We are not God, and we are far from perfect.”
From the words “something like a plague” we can learn, we can be reminded of our own fragility, we are confronted with our own vulnerability, and we are humbled by the recognition of just how much we need, are dependent and impact one another.