Our House, Afflicted

Leviticus is one of the more challenging and interesting books to read because it reflects a spiritual reality and theology that is far from our own.

In this week’s portion of Tazria and Metzorah, we read about tzaraat–afflictions that are commonly but not accurately translated as “leprosy”—that are diagnosed by a priest and remedied through isolation from the camp, ritual bathing, and the offering of sacrifices. These afflictions can be of the skin, clothing, or even of houses.

No reason is given for these afflictions but the the ancient rabbis believed that they were punishments for sin, specifically ethical infractions such as hurtful speech. Nowadays, perhaps, that theology is difficult, and we don’t draw a direct correlation between our ethical behavior and bodily afflictions.

But perhaps there is a connection. I find fascinating the idea of afflictions of homes and dwellings. Yes, we today can still have mold and mildew in our homes, but it is not caused by lapses in our ethical behavior. But on the other hand we also know that the sins we do commit—the sins of racism, of state violence, of devaluing human life–do have the ability to infect our homes, our communities, our nation in other ways.

We witnessed once again the murder of young Black men at the hands of the police this week with the deaths of Duante Wright and Adam Toledo, the first during a traffic stop and the second after turning with hands raised. And these most recent incidents happened with the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd last summer.

The death of Adam Toledo is particularly hard, not only because of the graphic video footage that shows his death, but because of his age. I have a son of similar age. It is the age of b’nai mitzvah, when our Jewish children turn 13 and are welcomed into the community as “adults.” I teach our b’nai mitzvah students, I know how 13-year-olds think, feel, react, and engage and it pains my heart to think about what Adam must have been thinking. We do not share a cultural context, but I know that 13-year-olds are still in formation.

Our houses are infected. And as we begin to overcome one infection, we are raising another to a new level. One that was always there but was grossly overlooked. The phrase “getting shot” has never had more powerful and contradictory meanings. One shot conveys life, another death.

I got my second shot today, and I recited the blessing that I anticipated saying in an earlier post: Blessed are You, Source of Life, Sovereign of All Space and Time, Who Frees the Captive. I feel we have been held captive for so long—literally in our homes, but also by fear, distance, suspicion, individualism, inequity, and poor leadership. We have been held captive by a virus that has killed so many. (Bacteria nearly killed me once). We are not there yet, this was one step toward becoming free.

When we get vaccinated, we are doing something for ourselves and also for others. It is a means of using our body as a true vessel for the holy–the healing of self and the healing of others. The pandemic has reminded us of the fragility and power of the body.

And yet these most recent incidents, like others before them, like centuries of history, prove once again that we do not value some bodies the same way we value others. And until we do that, our homes will always be afflicted. Until we do that, we will never be free.

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