On the margins is where some of the most profound holy acts are performed. Standing with those who are in the shadows, on the margins of society, those who have been abandoned, those in our communities who frighten us, who push us to see our own vulnerability, human beings we ignore in the hopes they will disappear — but they don’t.
Some of the greatest spiritual healers in our world don’t just speak about healing those on the margins, they actually go to the margins and bring healing. In our tradition, based in part on the teachings of the parasha this week, Metzora, the Talmud recounts the following about not only spiritual healers, but about something/someone bigger: the Messiah.
Sanhedrin 98a recounts the following discussion between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah the prophet:
“When will the Messiah come?”
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where can I find him?”
“At the gates of Rome.”
“By what signs will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor and the suffering sick.”
Our vision of the Messiah is not of one who will ride in on a white horse, one who dwells among the rich and famous or in the halls of power. Our vision of the Messiah — and therefore our vision of how we, the Jewish people, should seek to emulate and thereby bring about the Messiah or Messianic Age, depending on your own theology — is to be one who sits with the sick, the outcasts, those on the margins, what some call “the wretched of the Earth.”
Our parasha this week tells about the lepers, about those with skin afflictions, those whose homes have been affected by “the plague,” namely those we fear and wish not to see. And it is the priest, the spiritual leader of the community, who goes to them, who seeks to bring comfort and healing, who offers love and support in their time of darkness and pain.
Our job as emulators of God’s will on Earth is to be healers, to be human beings who seek to offer love and support in another’s time of darkness and pain. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom writes, “The Messiah is not a miracle worker. He does not wave wands, he does not walk upon the waters. He is no magician. He takes care of the sick one by one, wound by wound, bruise by bruise, sore by sore, bandage by bandage. The Messiah is a healer of men and women.”
While this parasha is one that often turns us off — who really likes to talk about infectious diseases, house mold, seminal emissions or menstrual blood? — the Torah is actually giving us a gift. Understanding that our world, and our physical bodies, have aspects to them that are messy and sometimes unpleasant, we gain a greater appreciation of how sensitive and truly magnificent creation actually is. While we have thankfully grown wiser regarding the taboos of semen and menstrual blood, namely that they are not scary or unnatural, but are the life force of creation, many of us still find diseases, and those infected, to be scary. Whether it is someone who looks different, because of a skin ailment, injury or birth defect, or someone who acts different, be it a stutter, mental disability or other physical challenge, we are called to treat them as the human beings they are: created in the image of God and deserving of respect, dignity and love.
I believe that this parasha is a call to us to be like priests in our daily lives. And, to complete the Messiah teaching, the same piece of Talmud ends this way: Rabbi Yehoshua asks, “When will You [the Messiah] come?”
“Today,” says the Messiah.
Returning to Elijah the prophet, Rabbi Yehoshua asks, “How can I believe him [the Messiah] seeing that he spoke falsely, for he told me that he would come today and he has not yet come.”
Elijah responds, “When he told you ‘today,’ he was quoting a verse that goes on to say, ‘If you will hear God’s voice’ ” (Psalms 95:6-7).
The message here is that the Messiah, or Messianic Age, comes when we act in accordance with the greatest teachings of our tradition. It is not enough to study Torah and think that we are good people. We must go to the margins of society, stand with the poor, the sick, the discarded and the forgotten of our community. As Schulweis teaches, we must be healers of men and women.
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