This upcoming Wednesday, April 13 (12 Nisan) marks the eighth yahrtzeit of my uncle Rabbi David Younger, z”l. This year, as the world struggles with conflict, I miss my uncle’s quiet wisdom and non-anxious presence, and wonder what he might have to say about the chaotic times in which we now live.
The year my uncle died, Shabbat Hagadol came out on 12 Nisan. In “before times” it was my habit to commemorate my uncle’s yahrtzeit by preparing and giving a shiur for Shabbat Hagadol. When pandemic overtook us, I unfortunately fell out of the habit. This year, on Shabbat morning, I offered this brief reflection in memory of my uncle. I hope that my uncle’s neshama might find some nachat from my words.
If I were king of the world, I would make some changes to the Torah reading cycle. I would change the cycle so that we would reading from the beginning of the book of Exodus at this time of year. First, we would read about the exodus from Egypt, and then we would celebrate that exodus over Passover.
Instead, we read from the beginning of Exodus several months ago, and this week, we are in the weeds in the middle of the book of Leviticus. My bar mitzvah portion was last week’s portion, parashat Tazria, and both last week’s portion and this week’s portion of Metzora deal with tzara’at, commonly translated as “leprosy.” My bar mitzvah speech, with which my uncle David helped, was about tzara’at. I spoke about our classical commentators’ observation that tzara’at might have been a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease caused by lashon hara, commonly translated as “gossip.” These are difficult portions to find anything else to speak about. An informal poll of a few friends whose bar mitzvas fell out during one or the other of these two portions indicated that they, too, spoke about tazara’at and lashon hara, or chose not to speak about the portion at all and spoke about tefillin.
At first glance, tazara’at and lashon hara seem to have no connection to Passover. However, upon reflection, I believe that the ideas are strongly connected – both have to do with storytelling.
We all have stories we tell about ourselves and about others. Sometimes, when we have a relationship problem, we tell ourselves the story in which the other person is to blame for our feelings and our problems. We engage in lashon hara, saying, “if only that person was different, we would feel differently.” Blaming others for our own insecurities and anxieties that we do not want to own up to is a spiritual disease, and in ancient times, tzara’at was a physical manifestation of that spiritual disease.
Someone who exhibits symptoms of tzara’at was first quarantined in their own home, and ultimately, ejected from the community. This was done to invite the individual to reflect on the true source of their feelings. When no one else is around, and you are still feeling the same way and having the same insecurities and anxieties, it is a strong clue that the source of the issue lies within you, not out there in the world. If you want to feel differently, you might need to change the story you are telling yourself.
I know to some this sounds a lot like victim blaming. In truth, it is empowering. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter reminds us, to make change in the world, we must first make change in ourselves. Each of us has a choice over what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and what stories we tell about others. Focusing on others as the source of our feelings and problems, as opposed to focusing within ourselves, is a form of slavery, as it leaves the control of how we feel and ultimately, how we act, in the hands of someone else. Being able to focus inward to choose what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others is the first step to freeing ourselves from that form of slavery.
At the Passover seder, we are told that it is incumbent to see ourselves as if each of us personally and individually have been liberated from Egypt. Unless you work in construction (and by construction, I mean real construction, with hard, physical labor, not watching someone else shvitz on HGTV) it might be hard to connect with the idea of being liberated from the form of labor we experienced in Egypt.
I suggest that liberation from Egypt was less about the labor, and more about the form of slavery that we experienced, where control over our entire lives was handed over to someone else. When we are encouraged to see ourselves as having been liberated from Egypt, we are being invited to see ourselves in the story of slavery and liberation, and to reflect on how we tell our own stories. Do we tell our stories in a way that blames others for our problems, or do we look inward at what change we might need to make in the stories that we tell ourselves and others?
Wishing each one of you a happy and healthy Passover. May it be God’s will that each of us engage in retelling our own stories in ways that allow us to enter deeper relationships with others, and with God, and by doing so, may we merit to spend next Passover in Jerusalem, rebuilt.