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Fear and Hatred, and the Remedy

Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion - Tazria-Metzora

This week's Torah portion is about mob violence. You wouldn't think so from a first read. On the surface, most of the portion (Tazria-Metzora) is about a skin lesion called "tza'ra'at". In older Bibles, this skin disease was translated as "leprosy," but modern medicine has ruled that out. It might as well have been leprosy. What is described in the Torah is a frightening growth on the skin (and toward the end of the portion, on the walls of dwellings) that would have caused disgust and revulsion.

The natural reaction of a group of scared people would have been to banish the afflicted person, for fear of contagion. An overreaction on the part of a group of superstitious people would have been to kill the afflicted person, the skin disease being thought to be a result of some demonic possession. A person with some disease or condition that marks them as different can quickly become "other" - less human than the rest of us, to be marked off, excluded, banished, or killed.

The Torah portion describes a process that effectively gets ahead of the mob. There are detailed instructions for dealing with the outburst. The Kohen acts as a physician, diagnosing the unsightly scurf as to whether it is actually tza'ra'at or not. If the Kohen determines that the rash is not the feared condition, the person is declared "clean." Everyone can relax. The inciters of the mob skulk off until the next opportunity.

If the Kohen decides that the scall is actually tza'ra'at, a detailed ritual kicks in. The precision of the ritual and the time it consumes would weary any mob (or most readers of this Torah portion, for that matter). Mob violence coalesces around fear, hatred, judgment and action. Precise thinking kills the energy. Nothing ruins the ecstasy of the mob more than deliberate cogitation.

I have a particularly harsh view of mob violence, having been the victim of a minor race riot or two due to a certain skin condition from which I suffered - being white - while I attended Franklin D. Roosevelt Junior High School in Compton, CA. My parents were fervent civil rights proponents, and I grew up with a rather dim view of white people (especially southerners), and a probably rather exalted view of black people, all of whom I thought had the probity and dignity of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. I had read about blacks being attacked by white mobs. It had never occurred to me that black mobs would attack whites, much less that I would actually be one of those whites attacked by a black mob.

I came to the conclusion that black people and white people are pretty similar, but not in a good way. All humans - any grouping of humans - can see some other person or group as the "other", and with proper motivation, can take the evil pent up in some tortured chamber of the soul and unleash it against some hapless person or group. I concluded fairly young that the issue was not black people or white people. When I learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew School I was fairly certain the issue was not Germans and Jews, or Christians and Jews.

The issues today are not Sunni and Shia, Muslims and Jews, or here at home, left and right. That bloc of the political left up at Berkeley might think they hate Anne Coulter because she is a political conservative. Actually, they hate her because it is within the human condition to hate. The irrational fear of Muslims by some on the right is not actually about Muslims, it is about the human condition to fear. Your race, nation, politics, religion and locality just give you more specific instructions on whom to hate and whom to fear.

Not all humans, of course, are afflicted with the tendency toward fear and hatred. The problem is that fear and hatred are so much stronger than benign acceptance and tolerance. Combatting fear and hatred (and it does come down to combat at times) takes so much determined, vigilant and concerted action. There is also the problem of contagion - fighting against hatred can make us haters ourselves.

The precise, boring and even disgusting details of this Torah portion are like a balm to the burning itch to fear, hate, expel, banish, silence and kill. Calm, careful, and compassionate thinking can be a remedy for the most dangerous condition of all - the human condition.

There is great beauty under the rather repelling surface of this week's Torah portion - a beauty that I hope to uncover during my teachings this Shabbat.

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