While reorganizing my files this week, I found my p’tur, the certificate of proof that I received a Jewish divorce. Looking through the document, I discovered the English and Hebrew dates coincide again this year, a calendrical alignment of seismic proportions. For all the transitional moments in my life whose dates I remember – the day I received my college acceptance, the first marathon I ever ran, the date of my daughter’s immersion in the mikvah for conversion – the date on which I received a get (Jewish divorce) was never etched in my mind.
At the time of my divorce, I was a student in a community that really didn’t speak about divorce, except as a topic for text study. Looking back, I see that inner turmoil had seeped through my body. Having left class a few times feeling (and looking) ill, a classmate followed me out the door to ask if I was pregnant (no; just emotionally tortured and spiritually bereft). When I carefully and selectively shared with people that my marriage had ended, I was greeted with discomfort, at best. Of course, I experienced deep kindness as well, the friend who gave me an apartment key in case I needed a place of respite (or refuge), a trusted senior colleague who shared a prayer for the otherwise silent partner in the dissolved marriage (the woman) to say during the ceremony of release, and friends who stood by me physically and otherwise as I received my get.
Reflecting on my experience, tzara’at, discussed in this week’s double parasha Tazria-Metzora has new meaning for me. Tzara’at emerges as a skin ailment that places the sufferer outside the community. “He calls out ‘impure, impure,'” v’tamay tamay yikra (Leviticus 13:45). Rashi holds the leper responsible for informing others of his condition lest he contaminate them. Stop for a moment and ask yourself honestly, how would you react to someone calling out “tarnished, tarnished” about him or herself?
To be clear, tzara’at can be understood as the physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment. Emotional and spiritual turmoil manifests itself in our bodies, weighing us down, tiring us out, and making us feel – and sometimes appear other. When we feel most vulnerable, isolated and alone, it’s not always easy to speak out. Yet, in quoting our verse, the Talmud presents this exclamation as an invitation to compassion from others, calling the community to embrace and support the afflicted. “…he must make his grief publicly known, so that the public may pray for him” (Shabbat 67a). It is incumbent upon the one in pain to speak up so that the community responds.
Throughout the process leading up to my divorce and even afterwards, I felt completely other, as though I bore the mark of Cain. How (and why) should I speak out to a community that was not prepared to listen, to hear my pain, to respond with prayer. As I moved into my rabbinate, I worked daily with people in times of deep suffering, exhilarating joy and everywhere in between. As I was present for others, making space for conversation, reflection, and engagement with Jewish tradition, I witnessed people connecting among and across friendship circles, building relationships, inviting God in, finding their voice and restoring themselves in body and soul. Just as my community offered love and care to one another, so too did I begin to see myself again as holy, a part of instead of apart from the community. Negah/affliction (nun-gimel-ayin) became oneg/delight (ayin-nun-gimel).
This growth and expansion stemmed from an awareness of the potential for good in the world around me and a growing trust in something deep within myself, a tiny droplet that had dried up years before, a place of godliness within. The words of the prophet Jeremiah gave me strength and a vision of what could be. “Blessed is the one who trusts in the holy one, whose trust is in God alone. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, sending forth its roots by the river and shall not see when the heat comes. Its leaves are fresh. It shall not worry in a year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit (Jeremiah 17:7-8). The deeper I planted my roots, the safer I became in times of light and darkness. The more the rain drenched my soul, the more I came to embrace what set me apart, the ways in which we are all, in fact other.
Marge Piercy writes in The Seven of Pentacles:
Under a sky the color of pea soup, she is looking at her work growing away there actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans as things grow in the real world, slowly enough. If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water, if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food, if the sun shines and you pick off the caterpillars, if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees, then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground. You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet. Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet. Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree. Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden. Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure. Make love that is loving. Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with the rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen. Reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time. Not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
As the calendars realign this Shabbat after 19 years, I will give thanks for the breath that animates me in body and soul; for friends, family, and friends who are family; for the privilege of service; for the gift of being a mother; and for the voice God has bestowed upon me that I may not take for granted.
@Rabbi Lisa Gelber
April 23, 2015/4 Iyar 5775