Saturday 17th April 2021 20th Day of the Omer 5th Iyyar 5781
Leviticus 12:1–15:33; 2 Kings 7:3 – 20; Luke 2:22-35,Mark 1:35-45
Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
The kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of the flesh: If the hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction’s appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh—it is a tzara’at affliction; the kohen shall look at it and declare him contaminated. (Leviticus 13:3, author’s translation)
The Torah requires that the kohen, or priest, examine the person with tzara’at, an apparently severe and contagious skin affliction that is often wrongly translated as leprosy. Yet here in Leviticus chapter 13 the kohen is asked to observe it twice in the same verse. So why is there an obvious redundancy?
Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutno, a 19th century posek (a recognized decider of halakha) opined that it is incumbent that when one sees an afflicted person that he also sees him as a whole person. The kohanim were in a sense the “doctors of the soul.” This is the role of a kohen, to restore the person to wholeness—to have the imagination to see beyond a person’s present brokenness, and to recognize his or her own power to heal.
Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth, the greatest posek of all, is also the Kohen Gadol, the Great High Priest in heaven and earth. The Besorot (Gospels) record many stories of Yeshua healing individuals who are broken. In Luke 14 he chose to heal a man whose entire body was bloated as the result of tzara’at. The healing occurs in the home of a prominent Pharisaic scholar. Apparently, the sick man is in some way related to the household and is just lying suffering and, we might infer, dying. What is ironic is that the group of men who were present had the power to heal but they were largely unaware of it. It was an untapped power, since they preferred to stand in judgment rather than invite the man to the table and see him as anything other than a lost soul. Only those who know they are broken can offer healing to others.
Some people are not healed because they choose not to be healed. Yeshua once came upon a paraplegic at the pool of Beit-Zata who had been sitting there for years waiting to be lowered into the reputedly therapeutic waters. Yeshua asked the man the most enigmatic question: “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:1–6). The question seems so counter-intuitive. Why else might a sick man wait for therapy?
Still, so many people avoid healing both intentionally and inadvertently. They often lower their ideals to accommodate their present ability to fulfill their potential. Oddly many people would rather languish in pain and isolation than risk the failure of trying and trusting. Therefore, Yeshua’s simple remedy was to ask the man to pick up his mat and walk. We are often crippled by our own fear of trying.
I have always been amazed and inspired by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). Zacchaeus is a tax collector who climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Yeshua. From the reading we can deduce what is obvious in the social-historical context of the text. Tax collectors were considered “sinners,” collaborators with the illegitimate and pagan government. Yeshua’s rhetoric, though, would say anything but that: “Zacchaeus come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Yeshua goes on to describe Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham too.”
Yeshua is not merely appealing to Zacchaeus’s lineage, rather to a promise of Torah, which in that social context had long since been domesticated and dismissed when it came to Zacchaeus and those like him. The point here is that Zacchaeus accepts Yeshua’s counter-verdict and begins the process of living up to it, giving half his possessions to the poor and paying back four times what he has gained illicitly, twice the degree of repentance prescribed for such an act in Torah. Zacchaeus’ desire and effort to be spiritually healed is matched and encouraged by Yeshua’s desire to see him as he can be rather than as he presently is.
I would offer one more example, this one of a modern-day kohen and the spiritually broken metzorah (“leper”) who crossed the threshold into his life. The story is recorded in the 1995 book, Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, by Kathryn Watterson.
Michael Weisser was a trained conservative cantor, recently graduated and ordained as such. He was offered the position as spiritual leader of a small synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska; a synagogue that did not have the resources or appeal to call a rabbi. But shortly after moving his family into a house on Randolph Street in Lincoln he began to receive threatening antisemitic phone calls, “You’ll be sorry you moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew-boy.” The calls became more frequent and were accompanied by letters as well. They were all coming from a man named Larry Trapp who had connections and credentials from several white supremacist organizations. He had been terrifying Jews and other minorities in Lincoln for almost a decade.
The truth is that the terrifying specter of Larry Trapp was merely an illusion. Trapp was a severe diabetic who had already lost both legs to amputation and was confined to a wheel chair. He was a sad, angry, disenfranchised man, a victim of abuse himself, who used terror to try to regain some control over his world in lieu of the acceptance he craved.
One day when Trapp called, Cantor Weisser and his wife inexplicably began to read Psalms to him over the phone. Following a series of strange developments during subsequent calls, Cantor Weisser went to visit the man who still was a symbol of fear to his family. He was shocked to see the broken man who had previously terrified him and was appalled at the squalor in which he lived. He continued to visit Larry Trapp until his health had faltered so severely that he could no longer care for himself.
Trapp moved in with the Weisser family, and in a still stranger turn of events converted to Judaism and became a member of the family. He lived with the Weisser family for years, and they became his caregivers until his physical maladies from years of abuse overcame him. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery and was remembered fondly by many of the people in the community whom he had previously terrorized.
To be healed we must see ourselves as whole. To fill our role as a nation of kohanim we must see others as whole. Let us then rise to the occasion.