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Parashiot Tazria-Metzorah 5781

April 16, 2021
Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah
A D’var Torah for Tazria-Metzorah
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)Not all Parshiyot are equally welcomed by rabbis – or by congregants! One could say these are the Parshiyot that we love to hate. Bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls cringe when they find out they need to write a D’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion, whose subject matter is skin diseases and emissions of fluids, both natural and pathological, from various orifices of the body. I suspect that their parents wish they had been savvy enough to check ahead of time to find out the subject matter of this week’s Torah reading before scheduling their child’s big day. For this is the week when this most obtuse of subjects is read from our holy Torah in synagogues across the world. We rabbis struggle to find meaning, to find significance, to come up with interpretations to teach our congregants. Many times we fall back on the ancient Midrash that connects the word “Metzora” with the similarly sounding words “Motzi Shem Ra”. The word “Metzora” could be translated as leper. The three words, “Motzi Shem Ra” literally mean “bringing out a bad name”. The ancient rabbis thus reason that Metzora is the punishment for slander or gossip. This interpretation is borne out later in the Torah when Miriam is stricken with Tzara’at for speaking against her brother. In this there is much grist for a sermon.

Fortunately there is something else we can give a sermon on this week. As you know, this Wednesday marks Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. This is followed on Thursday by Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. On Wednesday Israel will remember the 23,741 soldiers who have fallen since its founding in 1948. Chicago’s Jewish Federation representative in Jerusalem, Mr. Ofer Bavly, describes the solemn occasion with these moving words:

“[On Wednesday] morning we will go to work and in most workplaces and in all official offices there will be memorial ceremonies. Many will wear white shirts, as is the custom. Thousands will go to the military cemeteries to stand next to their loved ones, next to their friends at 11 as a two-minute siren will sound all over Israel. We will stand next to the grave that bears a name, a birth date, an age at the time of death. The ages will usually be between 18 and 21. Those are the ages of the fallen soldiers. On Mount Herzl, at the military section of the cemetery, there are thousands of graves, in row after row after row. They are all the same. All as uniform as the clothes worn by our fallen soldiers. All identical, but bearing different names. We will be there, and we will see the family of the fallen soldier in the grave to the right and the family of the fallen soldier in the grave to the left. The families that we see every year, as a matter of ritual. The families that get older each year while the tomb of their loved ones remains as fresh as it was so many years ago……….”

The following day, the national mood changes from somber to joyous, as Israel celebrates the 73rd anniversary of its founding as a modern state. For me, the founding of the Jewish State and its continued well-being should be at the core of one’s Jewish identity. I wish every Jewish person in our country would have as one of their goals in life to visit Israel at least one time. Yet, in a survey conducted in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, when Jews were asked what is essential to being Jewish, only 43% of them responded, “Caring about Israel”. This was only 1% higher than those who responded that “Having a good sense of humor” was an essential part of their Jewish identity.

Yet, “Caring about Israel” ought to be an essential element of our Jewish identity, particularly in the times we live. The American-Jewish teacher and author Peninah Schram tells of the time when she had completed graduate school in 1960 and wanted to travel to Europe for the summer. She wanted to visit Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, the Roman Coliseum and all of the churches and historic cities of England and France and Italy. Her father suggested she visit Israel instead. “Peninah,” he said, “Israel is like your mother. There are mothers who are more fashionably dressed than your mother. There are mothers who are better educated than your mother. There are mothers who speak without an accent, like your mother does. But your mama is your mama. So, too, there are countries that have more beautiful museums than Israel. There are countries that have older universities than Israel. There are countries that have much more magnificent architecture and art than Israel. But Israel is like your mother.”

“Israel is like your mother”. I think that is a beautiful sentiment, and one that all Jews should consider when talking publically about Israel. That is why I am particularly pained when I hear rabbis and other Jewish leaders publically criticize Israel in the harshest of terms. To me this is literally “motzi shem ra” – bringing out the bad in a name. Rather, when speaking about Israel, we should speak about her like she is our mother. The Torah does not instruct us to admire our mother. It does not tell us to approve of everything she does. Rather, it enjoins us to treat her with respect. And so when we criticize Israel we should measure our words and speak with respect — with respect and understanding for the sacrifices that have been made to create and to defend her; respect and understanding for the ongoing difficulties that she needs to negotiate, sunrise to sunset, Shabbat to Shabbat, year in and year out.

Shabbat Shalom
Marc Rudolph (AJR 04) is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois.