Tazria Metzora–Empathy, Medicine and OUR Rabbinical Assembly

Twenty years ago, I stood in front of Congregation Beth Shalom in Dunwoody, GA, with family and friends.  I read from the Torah, led the services, and shared words of Torah.  I suppose one might say not much has changed in the last twenty years!  Standing on that bimah I spoke about Parshat Tazria,  I still have not found my bar mitzvah speech.  I wonder if I spoke to the dermatologists in the audience or focused on the rabbinic relation to motzi shem ra, to evil speech.  I had two powerful experience this week relating to the parsha, that I would like to share with you all.


First is related to the parsha directly.  I read from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Noah Farkas.  He wrote in the LA Jewish Journal about how this parsha teaches empathy. (http://jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/torah_portion/218359/parshat-tazria-metzora-burden-gift-empathy/) He opened with a necessary theological apology.  SPeaking of this rabbinic connection between behavior and illness, he wrote of how so many feel guilt, that they somehow deserve their illness, and argued that we must break this link.  “When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.”  When I stand in a hospital room, I am reminded of this over and over again.  Illness comes to young and old, to innocent and guilty, to good and not so good people.   While there are some illnesses that are a consequence of past choices, they are still not punishment for sins in other parts of our life.  We may CHOOSE to try to gain strength from the suffering, but it does not mean the suffering is a consequence of our actions.  Rabbi Farkas has a Jewish bio-medical ethics group with doctors and wrote of the parallels between our modern doctors and the priests of old.  He reminds us that empathy is a necessity for medical care.  “After the priest sees them and welcomes them back to the community, a sacrificial rite is performed. The patient is brought to the literal center of the community and anointed in the same manner with the same rituals that anoint the High Priest over the people. Both priest and patient are bound together in this ritual of mutuality.” I think that as mechanized and technologicized (I may have made up that word) as medicine has become, the human connection is essential.  Some medical schools even have mock patient scenarios as part of their interviews to weed out potential doctors who have absolutely no bedside manner!


Dovetailing with those words of Torah, were words I heard on Thursday at the Rabbinical Assembly’s Executive Council meeting.  I went perhaps unethusiastically.  How could I miss our annual meeting?  How could I be away from our community to think about the needs of the RA.  What is the purpose of the RA for me?  Yet after just a few hours, I saw great holiness.  I heard powerful Torah.  I saw an organization that is looking carefully at its past and future.  Like our congregation, the RA is over 100 years old.  Like us, it has people that are more and less connected, wondering about what comes next.


Over the two days I was at the Pearlstone Retreat Center (http://pearlstonecenter.org), we carefully considered a proposal from a Texan rabbi.  We went through a huge agenda and made significant progress.  We even changed our meeting structure for the future.  Rather than going through a standard agenda, our future meetings will only have action items.  If it is just a report, we will read it before the meeting.  Those reports will include follow-ups to ensure that previous items are dealt with.  This is called a consent agenda–we consent that we can group those reports into one agenda item and quickly move on to the things that matter!  The second day was follow-up on the RA’s strategic plan.  The last two years the board and another 30-60 rabbis have been heavily involved in considering what the RA has been successful at and what is essential for its future.  The biggest change may seem small, but has been to change the language.  Instead of saying THE RA as I just did, it is calling it OUR RA. When we speak of OUR RA, we are claiming ownership.  We remind ourselves and those around us that we are a part of that organization.  How would that work for us?  We might speak of OUR shul instead of THE shul.  Our Agudas Israel instead of just CAI.  Our home instead of just Kol.


Returning the parsha, I want to share a verse that was mentioned in a Dvar Torah yesterday.  Vayikra 13:3 says:
וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע בְּעֽוֹר־הַ֠בָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָ֨ר בַּנֶּ֜גַע הָפַ֣ךְ ׀ לָבָ֗ן וּמַרְאֵ֤ה הַנֶּ֙גַע֙ עָמֹק֙ מֵע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֔וֹ נֶ֥גַע צָרַ֖עַת ה֑וּא וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ.
׃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
As my colleagues noted, it is strange that the priest seems to examine or look at the person or irritation twice.  The question is the focus of the second look.  Before declaring the person clean or unclean, the priest must look at the WHOLE person.  Like every hospital and medical practice claims today, they must not just look at the illness, but the entire person.  Doctors, nurses and our ancient priests recognize that the illness is not in isolation. It is not just a skin infection.  It is on a human being.  That person has needs, wants, hopes, dreams.  That person lives in their economic, social, religious context.  If the doctor sees only the irritation, she cannot do her job.


This is a major challenge of the economics of medicine today, when doctors are required by their employers to see far too many patients.  They have no time to be patient and to do their job well are often forced to work extra unpaid hours to deal with their paperwork and computers.  While I cannot claim to have a solution for that issue, our Torah reminds us that it is a problem!  So as I declare the importance of empathy FROM the medical professions, let us also have have empathy FOR the medical professions.  They, too, are people who must have lives and possibilities.

Remembering Grandma

This is a virtually unedited transcript of my remarks about my grandmother at her funeral this past Monday. Grandma Alice was an extraordinary woman. All who knew her were blessed by her insight and love:

Standing before you I see the people that knew and loved my grandmother, as well as the people that know and love the people that loved my grandmother. Together they expand those circles of love, the love that was was expressed so powerfully from Alice Paulin.


My grandmother and I had much in common.  She shared with me the drive to be advocates of our traditions, teachers, readers, students of history, coin collectors, explorers, seekers, and sometimes creatures of habit.  We shared conversations at all hours of the night and were not afraid to be grumpy in the morning–cured by a good cup of coffee (or 10 in her case.)  She was my role model for procrastination and her piles of books and papers are a clear reminder that I really need to reorganize my office.  Grandma Alice also showed me the value of choosing a life partner who cares for you, respects you and pushes you and challenges you to be your best.  Grandpa Ben was one of the kindest, warmest people I ever knew.  He also liked a far neater house than Grandma–and would regularly toss out anything that he didn’t think was essential–which while occasionally frustrating–turned out to be essential living with Grandma.  While Rebecca refuses to do that in our house, she has helped me go to sleep at a reasonable hour and keep the house at a level of organized child centered chaos.  I love you Becca.


Grandma Alice represented New York.  Growing up in Atlanta, every vacation was coming back here.  Visits with Grandma meant going to shows, finding new places to eat or looking for the best hole in the wall with amazing pizza.  Before the internet we found it somewhere near Times Square–twice–and then never found it again.  We occasionally got lost, but using paper maps and the Manhattan grid, we always got where we wanted to go.  Exploring was half the adventure.


As I got older, Rachel and I even came up ourselves a couple times and had many opportunities to use public transit, play tourist in the city and truly feel like New Yorkers.  For years, Grandma had us walking like New Yorkers, rushing from Ellis Island to the top of the World Trade Center, South Street Seaport and all across Manhattan.  When I was at JTS, I would take the A train from one end to the other to spend a Sunday afternoon with her.  


Walking a bit more slowly now, we’d carefully make our way to the shopping center and pick up bagels or go to the Italian Place.  Now by this time, she couldn’t see or hear particularly well, so she might look at the menu with a magnifying glass and reading glasses, but more likely I would read it to her.  My better half reminded me that she would have me read the entire menu–just in case–and then we would inevitably get eggplant parmigian heros–unless we were really hungry and then we would get the plate.  Of course, we could have split the hero, but we would always get two and then have leftovers.  As the years went by, I’d try to get her to Waldbaums, too, just to make sure she didn’t have to carry groceries by herself, but she didn’t like to “waste my time” with shopping.  Thankfully, Mary helped her with that the rest of the time.


Grandma Alice loved her family, her daughters.  She was fiercely protective–a mama bear–and somewhat stubborn.  She liked things her way–but then–don’t we all?  She was always independent and she taught that to her family.  Once you were part of her family it was forever.  Her love for Rebecca was incredible.  I’m not supposed to say this, but I will anyway.  Not long after I started dating Becca, Grandma said, “I like her so much better than the other ones”.  While first whispered to me, as we stayed together (and got married), she told this to my mom, Rebecca and probably everyone else here.  Grandma definitely had her opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them.  

Grandma loved learning and teaching.  Long before they were popular, she had and taught computers.  I remember playing educational games on her computers as a very young child–when it was incredibly rare for anyone to have a computer–much less a grandma!  Her energy and enthusiasm for learning was contagious.  She loved to read and had books everywhere.  As she got older the print got bigger and then became books on tape, but she always wanted to know more about the world.  Her joy of learning was within the family, as well.  In the last few weeks, I’ve learned about the Paulin and Honigsman families, but Grandma had done much genealogical work on them and the Roth sides, too.  Using the precursors to ancestry.com, she created an extensive family tree, investigating ship records and census documents-cursing the fire that destroyed the 1890 census–maybe one day we’ll figure out how to find all the documents she did!


Last week and this week, our Torah reading speaks of the furnishings of the mishkan, the Temple while we wandered in the wilderness.  These parshiot would not have interested Grandma Alice, yet she would have been fascinated about the Urim and Thumim–the stones/breastplate/??? that helped the High Priest communicate with the Holy One–in fact I think I spoke to her about a paper I wrote in rabbinical school about them.  She would have been curious about the history of interpretation of this method of Divine communication.  How exactly did those stones work? Were they stones or the breastplate itself? Was it like a Magic 8 Ball or a more precise method of prophecy?

Yet to me, what is most powerful in our reading last Shabbat was the pure gold menorah, shining brightly, and eventually to be lit eternally.  Grandma Alice had a heart of pure gold.  With Grandpa Ben, she inspired us all.  She lit our flames, she lit us up.  She pushed us to be independent, to read, the ask questions, to fight for our rights, to be considerate of others.  She taught us to raise children who are not just polite, but can explore the world independently, who can build their own sanctuaries.  She will be missed.