The Fear of Freedom

I did not write last week because I took a trip out of town for a few days to Los Angeles. What brought me to LA (though I did tag on a few days of family vacation) was a two-day immersive learning experience at Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish residential treatment center for addiction that also serves as a congregation and Jewish spiritual center. Beit T’shuvah also develops programs of prevention, and trains professionals in its approach to recovery. It was in this capacity that I was there; my rabbinic association sponsored the workshop on Jewish approaches to recovery.

During this workshop we learned from both the clinical staff and the spiritual staff; the foundation of the approach to recovery there is spirituality. Residents have spiritual counselors as well as individual therapy and group meetings, and Jewish rituals of Shabbat and study are a key part of the week.

We didn’t spend Shabbat there, although I hear it is amazing—in addition to the traditions of Shabbat it also becomes a time in which people are celebrated with cakes for their sobriety birthday. But we did participate in the morning Torah study, a daily practice in which all the residents get together in the sanctuary for a discussion of the weekly portion. I found this to be very meaningful.

The study was led by one of the chaplains, and quickly joining was the senior rabbi, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Rabbi Borovitz’s own journey is one of addiction and recovery, and he, after his release for prison, eventually found his way to rabbinical school and whose rabbinic work is to serve those in recovery.

The study was on this week’s portion of Beshallach, the climactic moment of the Exodus story when Pharaoh has released the Israelites from slavery. The Israelites make their way out only to be pursued by Pharaoh’s army, dispatched after Pharaoh seeks to bring them back. They come to the Sea of Reeds, and when all seems lost, the sea splits and the Israelites cross through in safety as the waters come down on the pursuing army.

The portion opens with a geographic note: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” It was these verses that formed the basis for the study.

These verses talk about the first steps of the Israelites into freedom. The most direct route from Egypt to Canaan would have been up the coast of the Mediterranean, which was in ancient times the land of the Philistines. But God did not want to people to be afraid and want to turn back to the life in Egypt that they knew.

In the text God was concerned that the people would be afraid of war. In Rabbi Borovitz’s interpretation, war is a metaphor for all that comes with a life that is free from slavery. God was concerned that the people would be afraid of freedom.

While slavery brought its challenges, freedom also brings its own challenges. We fear freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, so we return to the things that are safe and give us comfort, even if they are not good for us. For the Israelites, it was Egyptian slavery. In Rabbi Borovitz’s teaching, this is the paradigm of addiction and recovery. Because we fear freedom, we retreat to those things that give us comfort, that shield us from responsibility, that are “safe.” And if we are Pharaoh’s grasp, he said, we can always blame everything on him. Ultimately, however, this is not good for us, and we need to be free.

Which is why, in the first verse, while the translation is “Pharaoh let the people go,” a more accurate translation is Pharaoh “sent the people out.” This is the meaning of the name of the parashah, Beshallach, “sent out.” That which is comfortable can also enslave us, and we will not willingly go, but we need to be sent out. We need to be free, and we need to face that very real fear of freedom.

And the road out can be long and difficult, another meaning of the reason for the long detour in the Torah. We have to be willing to take the long way at times, there are sometimes no shortcuts.

The fear of freedom is a powerful fear. It affects the Israelites, and it affects each one of us. It is something we all must face, and the strength to face it, as I learned at Beit T’shuvah, as we read in the Torah, comes from knowing that we do not need to face it alone.

Why We Get Sick

Recently on one of my rabbinic listservs, a colleague asked about this week’s Torah portion of Metzorah. The portion speaks of tzara’at, the biblical affliction commonly translated as leprosy (but not really connected to what we consider leprosy). This portion and last week’s, named Tazria, both deal with this issue. In fact the two portions are usually read together, but because of some calendar issues, they are read separately this year. Here is a longish excerpt from Tazria (bear with me):

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy. (Leviticus 13:1-8)

And another one from the portion Metzora (hang in there):

God spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel;  and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.  The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. These shall be presented before God, with the man to be cleansed, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, by the priest who performs the cleansing. (Leviticus 14:1-11)

Quite strange. In short, if one develops this disease—this “scaly affection”—they go to the priest who examines it and makes a determination. Such a disease can render a person ritually impure, so the priest does an examination, makes a diagnosis and prescribes a remedy of isolation and ritual cleansing. Not the way we approach illness and healing in our day and age.

The text is not only strange to us. It bothered the ancient rabbis as well, but for different reasons perhaps. While we may find this notion of ritual purity a foreign concept, the rabbis are worried about the origins of the disease.  The Torah does not give a reason as to why one person or another would get leprosy, but the rabbis in the Talmud make a suggestion:

Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of: “This shall be the ritual for the leper?” [Leviticus 14:2] It means, “This shall be the ritual for him who brings up an evil name.” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b)

Using word play, they say the one who brings up an evil name (Heb., motzi shem ra)—i.e., one who speaks ill of another—will become a leper. (Heb., the metzora.) The similar sounds in the Hebrew create the connection. In other words, one who uses hurtful speech will be afflicted with this skin disease as punishment.

On the one hand this is a nice midrash. If we understand the leprosy as metaphoric, then the rabbis are saying that hurtful speech has consequences. This is something we can understand. Unlike the children’s rhyme about “sticks and stones,” we know that the emotional damage brought about by hateful speech can be just as painful as broken bones.

But sometimes it is hard to read past the literal. Here then was my colleague’s question. This past year she was diagnosed with cancer. In light of this very real illness, how can she teach the traditional midrash of the portion which posits that illness is the result of the patient’s bad behavior? How can she teach a text that appears to “blame the victim?”

I appreciated her question as it is one I continue to wrestle with. Up until 10 years ago I was healthy, never broken a bone, never had a major illness, never been in the hospital. Then I began to lose my peripheral vision and a series of diagnostic steps led to my diagnosis of a cerebral cyst, followed by surgery. The cyst recurred two years later, followed by another surgery. (And so far, no recurrence. I recently went in for my routine 3-year MRI which was, in medical parlance, “unremarkable.” My next one has been pushed back for 5 years.) And then three years ago I contracted bacterial meningitis, which I amazingly not only survived but survived without any major complications, which put me in a small statistical set. Its been quite a decade for me, health-wise.

Brain. Not mine.

One of the first questions people ask me when I tell them my story of meningitis is, “How did you get it?” The answer: I don’t know. In fact, the medical community does not know how anyone gets meningitis—I remember the infectious diseases doctor telling me this explicitly. And the cyst I had has no specific cause, it was congenital, and was slowly growing in my head since birth, not an issue until it was.

Through all these medical experiences I have learned that despite how much we have advanced in medicine and treatment and health care technology, there is still so much we do not know when it comes to how and why illness occurs. This is both humbling and scares the shit out of me.

I therefore don’t see the rabbis connecting tzara’at to negative speech as blaming the victim, but rather exercising a fundamental human impulse—to make order of chaos, the understandable out of the random, to create a clear cause and effect. It is an impulse we still have today when we talk about illness, we try to find causality in eating habits, or behavior, or family history. But the real answer oftentimes to how or why illness happens is, “I don’t know.”

That is what the Torah is saying. In the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text, there is no reason given as to why a person will get this “scaly affection.” And while I don’t like the midrash of the rabbis connecting it to harmful speech, I am sympathetic to their motivation. Because even though we may find it troubling to say that a specific act brought about a physical affliction, the pshat is even scarier: that tzara’at—or illness in general—is random. This is a truth that the rabbis were trying to come to terms with, and it is a truth that we must try to come to terms with as well.

It’s difficult and unsatisfying, but it is our reality. And yet we also understand the truth and reality of healing as well. For while the pshat of the Torah is scary, it is also hopeful. On the one hand it teaches that random illness exists. So too it teaches of the possibility of recovery.