Fear and the Remedy
Thoughts on Torah portion Tazria-Metzora 2023 (adapted from previous years)
This week’s Torah portion is about mass fear, or better put, how to stave off mass fear. Mass fear makes people, and groups of people, think, say and do irrational and destructive things.
You wouldn’t know that this Torah portion is about the fear that produces irrationality and destructiveness, personal up to national, from a first read. On the surface, most of this week’s double Torah 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. What is described in most of these two combined Torah portions is a frightening growth on the skin (and toward the end of the portion, on the walls of dwellings) that would have caused fear, 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 fearful 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. Nowadays, we don’t need a skin disease to prompt the fear that produces the will to destroy someone. Sometimes, deep prejudices (and even merely disagreeing) can be enough to produce the will to obliterate.
The Torah portion describes a process that effectively gets ahead of the mob, a process that is boring and strange to the reader, until you understand the deeper thing going on – preventing people from acting on mass fear.
The impartial priest who is charge of the case only needs to find out if tza’ra’at is actually afoot. The priest more or less says, “Everyone calm down. I’ve got this one.”
Then we have detailed instructions for dealing with the outburst of the frightening skin condition. The Kohen acts as a physician, diagnosing the unsightly, severe scurf as to whether it is 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 scurf is actually tza’ra’at, a detailed ritual, including the afflicted person’s temporary removal from the camp, 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, judgmentalism and action based on fear. Precise thinking kills that energy. Nothing ruins the ecstasy of the mob more than deliberate cogitation, rational debate, the careful weighing of all points of view. Feelings such as fear do matter, of course, if there is real, immediate danger. That rational fear must be translated into a rational plan of action. Fear is bad when it becomes bad, when it takes us to a place without reason, without clarity, without a just and humane way forward. Then good thinking can become our salvation – our salve.
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, rational, careful, and compassionate thinking can be a remedy for the most dangerous condition of all – the human condition.
Life on earth can be randomly cruel and destructive and often there is little we can do but try to respond wisely and compassionately. Whatever other people do, our role is to make things better. Our character doesn’t depend on what other people do; our character depends on what kind of person we want to be become. In a crisis, be the solid, wise one, not the one who joins in caustic chorus.
I go back to the priest in our Torah portion dealing with the outbreak of an ugly and fearsome skin disease. The ultimate job of the priest was to calm the nerves of the mob, to get to the truth of the matter, to protect the group if they indeed need protection, to let the afflicted know they were being cared for, and ultimately to get society back to its stasis, until the next time.
There is great beauty under the rather repelling surface of this week’s Torah portion, a beauty that can be found in each of us.