Skin Disease, Sports Illustrated and Jewish Values

There is nothing easy about Parashat Tazria – bodily emissions, skin disease – it feels more like a medical school textbook than the spiritual anchor that we expect to find in our Torah.

You can imagine my surprise when I read about the parashah in Sports Illustrated!  A congregant shared with me an article about Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros’ all-star 3rd baseman. The article came out a couple of weeks ago.  It opens:

“The portion of the Torah known as Tazria-Metzora describes the ancient rituals God commanded Jewish people to undertake were they afflicted with a variety of unfortunate ailments, including scabrous skin infections, eruptive plague and penile discharge. It’s a little awkward, to say the least, for most of the 13-year-olds who discover that this is the passage they must chant and explain to their gathered families—and, even worse, to their also 13-year-old friends (penile discharge!)—at their bar or bat mitzvah service.

“But if the boy assigned that portion by the Hebrew calendar wished he had gotten one involving, say, Moses and the Red Sea instead, he didn’t show it at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque on April 21, 2007. ‘We all need to realize that there are people out there who may be suffering and we all need to try to do our part to relieve that suffering when we can,’ the 13-year-old, wearing a pinstriped suit, confidently read from his six-page, double-spaced speech. Two pages later, in a section on top of which he’d scrawled SLOWLY, he reached the heart of his message.

“’When I think about the future and how I can make a difference in the world, I want to be able to use my love of the game of baseball to be a good example and a good person,’ he said. ‘I want to be a professional athlete who plays for the love of the game, never quits trying to give my best and is a good role model for all of the kids who look up to baseball players.’

“The congregants must have smiled. It was a dream harbored by millions of boys at that optimistic age, just before hard realities arrive for almost all of them, Jewish or not. This particular one stood a head shorter than his mother, who herself was only 5’ 4″, and he struggled to hold the Torah’s moderately heavy scroll. But Alexander David Bregman was completely unabashed about his intentions. ‘There never was a Plan B,’ he says.”

* * *

Houston Astros infielder Alex Bregman on base against the Seattle Mariners on August 22, 2018. (Photo by Udeezy – Wikimedia Commons)

Well, to his credit, Alex Bregman became just that.  He is a successful professional baseball player. But it was not easy.  He dedicated himself to this goal day and night working incredibly hard to achieve his dream.

But, I have to say I was most impressed by reading about how he went to spend time with a fan who was dying of cancer and how he remains proud of his Jewish identity.

Those ideas of pride and values are embedded in this week’s haftarah as we spoke about earlier, it is a trifecta, triple Torah shabbat a rare event to say the least.

And it is in this special haftarah where we find some great ideas.  First of all, we have the value of transforming and renewing the tradition.

Surprisingly, in this text, Ezekiel creates new rituals or changes old ones.  For example, he seems to invent a new tradition about purging the Temple twice a year, neither one is Yom Kippur.  

This is pretty hutzpa-dik!  He has a lot of gumption doing this, but he does it.

How does Ezekiel invent a new timeline for the spiritual cleaning of the Temple?   

It’s not clear it may have been a one-time deal given all the upheaval that the Jewish people were experiencing at the hands of the Babylonians or it may be that there were different traditions or in the tumult of the destruction of the first Temple, traditions were lost, changed or simply invented.  In any case, it does speak to the evolving nature of Judaism.

Perhaps most striking is that Ezekiel indicates that this spiritual cleaning be done by applying blood to the doorposts of the Temple in Jerusalem.  

This is pretty strange!

If we are thinking of blood on the doorposts, what story are we thinking of?  

Preparing for the Passing Over of the Angel of Death by C. M. Burd from “With the children on Sundays” by Sylvanus Stall (Philadelphia: The Uplift Publishing Company, 1911.)

The Exodus!  The Israelites place blood on their doorposts in the manner we just read about in the special maftir portion they take the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel (the beam above the door) on the night before the Exodus.  This was to avoid the final plague and must have been quite a symbol of Israelite identity.

Ashkenazi mezuzah outside Museum am Judenplatz, Vienna

There is an aspect of this that continues to this day with our putting up a mezuzah, a small case around a mini-Torah scroll on the doorpost of every Jewish home.  

A symbol of Jewish identity one that Alex Bregman can certainly connect to.

But there is a deeper teaching here.  Ezekiel changes the ritual of marking one’s home to marking the Beit HaMikdash the Temple in Jerusalem.  

Why does he move the ritual from the home to the Temple?

Well for starters, with the destruction of the Temple, he wants to preserve the memory of our communal center, making sure that it would remain in the hearts and minds of the people.

Destruction of the First Temple by Nikolai Ge (1859) (Public Domain)

But there is something even deeper here.

He wants us to connect our homes and the Temple; Ezekiel wants us to see that our communal space truly is our home.  It is our spiritual home one that we should dwell in and feel “at home” in.  That is why to this day we work hard to create the feeling of home in shul

We want ourselves and our children to feel comfortable here whether they are eating, socializing or even running around this is their home away from home.

Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA

But I also see Ezekiel sharing with us a moral message.  He is reminding us of the need to be the same. Home or outside the home, we are invited to aspire to high moral behavior in all spaces.

Some of us do this outside of our homes at work, at school or at shul, here at synagogue, but we struggle at home to live up to the same levels of behavior.  We treat others well, but maybe not our own families or ourselves the same.

For others, it may be the opposite, we might excel at home, but struggle to connect to these ethical maxims out of our homes.

Ezekiel reminds us of a lofty goal to be the same in all places.  Not an easy aspiration, but a vision of how to live.  Mark ourselves with a sense of God’s presence and moral behavior in all spaces whether at home or elsewhere

Then we can truly aspire to Alex Bregman-type values unabashedly proud of our Jewish identity and utilizing it to move ourselves to higher moral standards.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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