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Tazria  5784 | Kate Rozansky 

04/15/2024 03:41:18 PM


Seeing and Returning

This week’s Torah portion is kind of gross, isn’t it? But what seems like a rather arcane discussion of different kinds of oozing lesions, is, in fact, a model of community care, led by the Kohanim, the priests. Parshat Tazria has much to teach us about how we, as a nation of priests, can and must be present for the ones we might otherwise be tempted to look away from.  

The operative word in this parsha is the root ro’eh- to see.  This root is often translated as “examine” but it is also just the regular word for seeing and looking. 

וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע

And if the Priest see the wound…

וְרָאָ֣הוּ הַכֹּהֵן֮ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי

And the Priest will see him on the Seventh day…

וְרָאָה֩ הַכֹּהֵ֨ן אֹת֜וֹ בַּיּ֣וֹם

And if the Priest sees it on that day…

לְכׇל־מַרְאֵ֖ה עֵינֵ֥י הַכֹּהֵֽן׃

Whatever is visible in the eyes of the Priest…

Once the Priest sees the wound, he is obligated to return to this person, to return again and again until they are healed, and then the Priest guides them through the process of ritual purification, and re-introduction into community. The seeing of this person’s malady creates an obligation to return. 

Last December, I posted on Facebook about a coffee table I wanted to give away. A woman contacted me and said she  knew a family who had just moved here from Afghanistan, who could really use it. The coffee table they had, had sharp corners, and they were worried about their kids. My table was oval. Would I deliver it to the family? I did. They invited me in for Oreos and dried fruit. We talked. Their 2-year-old loves trucks, like my children do. I walked in with a coffee table, and I walked out with a mission. 

Because here is what I learned: In 2021, with the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, the government issued several policies intended to make life easier for Afghan refugees, especially the ones whose lives were in danger because of their service to the American government.

Like many of you, Jeremy and I also directed much of our tzedaka that year to the local resettlement agencies who were heroically spearheading the efforts to help these people make their way in their new home country.

The US government also made Afghan refugees eligible for many social safety net programs that would otherwise have been off limits to them, as well as expanding support through other programs in the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

What I learned, last December, was that these expanded policies had an expiration date: September 30th, 2023. Even thought the families who made it before October 1st came to agencies exhausted by two years of overtaxed systems, eager to close out these cases and move on - they had some kind of care. But those who made it to America after October 1st, like one of the families I met this winter - these families get almost nothing. No one is responsible for them.  

Afghans who arrived after September 30th, 2023, are not eligible for any of the federal safety-net programs for refugees and asylees. No resettlement agency can take them. Maryland’s Office of Refugees and Asylees cannot help them. 

Yet even though these families were not able to make it into Operation Allies Refuge and Operation Allies Welcome, they fought very hard to come here. Like many late-arriving Afghan refugees, one of the two families I work with was able to get visas to Brazil. Then, they traveled through Central America. They crossed Panama’s treacherous no-man's-land, the Darien Gap, on foot – before finally arriving through the Southern Border.  My four year old is afraid of the shower. Their four year old has walked through a jungle. 

I did not go out that day in December, looking to take on two families who were up against a series of challenges almost impossible for me to contemplate. But now I’ve seen them. And, as in this parsha, the sight creates the obligation. 

There doesn’t seem to be much the priest can do to cure Tzaraat. There’s no magic potion or incantation, no korbanot to bring, not purification rituals to do until the Tzaraat is already gone. While they still have Tzaraat, the parsha only tells us that the priest comes to the afflicted person (or place, or thing), and looks. And if it isn’t better, the priest comes again. That really doesn’t sound like much. But it is a place to start. 

And so I keep going back to these families, who live in an apartment building called the Enclave. Sometimes I bring things, sometimes I just bring myself.  Sometimes, after they have spent another day waiting in long lines at another office only to be told no help is coming, the only thing I can offer is to pick them up and give them a ride home. 

Two years ago, like many of you, I wept when I saw those photographs of a  tiny baby being lifted up and handed over the wall into the arms of an American soldier, during the evacuation of Kabul. One of the daughters in the families I work with was born on September 16, 2021, exactly one month after the Taliban marched into Kabul. She is not that baby, but she could have been. She has tiny little earrings, and an enormous, powerful laugh. I saw her. The sight creates the obligation.  

This process is certainly testing me, but it has also given me some important gifts, that I woud like to share with you.  First, at a time where I feel more alienated than ever from so many of my non-Jewish neighbors, I have felt a strong temptation to retreat behind communal walls, to withdraw from non-Jewish spaces and non-Jewish community.   Working with these Afghans reminds me I can continue to be proudly Jewish and proudly engaged in a communal cause beyond my own - as pressing and real as those are. I will not allow other people’s hatred to take me away from this work. I refuse. And this refusal feels deeply ennobling. It has been a much-needed reassurance, a lifeline of self-respect, of chazaq v’ematz, strength and courage. I will not be siloed away by the hatred of others, or by my own fear. 

Second, I have learned that religious Jews can be particularly well-suited to this kind of work. All those labyrinthine forms these families have to fill out in order to access very basic goods don’t scare me, because I learn Gemara. (Ah, Ma’am - did you just refer me to your department's 200 page regulatory manual to tell me that this family is not qualified for your program? Please stand by for my eager reply.) 

Next, because religious people understand each other. When, waiting in a long line at the Social Security office, one of the women asked me to download an app with a compass on it so that she could pray. Her husband started to explain why, but I could tell them - don’t worry, I already have one of those. And it even points in a similar direction.

When the father of the family tells me he is ashamed to ask for charity, because, as a veteran of the Afghan National Army, he is used to being able to protect his family, and I tell him that giving charity is not something we do out of the goodness of our heart, but because it is an obligation we have, that by allowing us to help him, he is giving me the gift of allowing me to obey this divine commandment- I think he understands that. I hope he does. 

And finally, religious Jews are well suited to this work because, honestly, it is so overwhelming, so infuriating, so impossible -  that it's not clear how someone who is not a person of faith could stand it.  But -  as we might say, Jews know from impossible. We have also escaped an evil power by crossing a sea and wandering through a perilous wilderness, towards a place we have never seen, in response to a promise made a long time ago. 

In less than two weeks, we will be asked to see ourselves as if we had left Mitzrayim. I will tell you what someone who has left such a place looks like: Terrified. Uncertain. Determined. Brave.

The people I have met doing this work – a low-level worker who slips me a superior’s direct phone number - an employee who will strain the limits of credulity with what can only be described as Rabbinic creativity to qualify the family for his organization’s program, a former MCPS employee who spends her free time doing home visits to refugee families so she can sign their kids up for school — all of these have showed me holiness, and righteousness, and goodness in the world. 

And I have seen such goodness from the Ohev community as well. You have responded with astonishing generosity to my calls for needed household supplies, as well as to my phone calls asking for unofficial professional advice. One of you even went over to their apartment last week to help one of the fathers practice for a job interview. It meant so much to them. Thank you. 

In the Gemara, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meets Eliyahu ha Navi and asks him where he can find the Moshiach, and Eliyahu tells him that Moshiach will be at the gates of the city, sitting with those afflicted with tzaraat.  

The cycle of care that we see in this week’s parsha-  how the priest visits, and sees, and if the person isn’t better, the priest returns, and returns, and returns -what we see in this week's Parsha is not merely a process for treating a technical malady, but the process by which the Jewish people can help bring about the world’s redemption.  

We do this by recognizing our duty to those on the margins. We do this by not looking away. By sending the highest among us to the outskirts, to look and to be present with, and to be a source of support to those whom we have made most vulnerable.  This, I think, is the magic of a life shaped by halakha. Halakha can turn pain into purpose, grief into action, isolation into community, and fear into love. 

In two weeks, at the Seder, when I open the door for Eliyahu, I hope I get to say to him:  I have been waiting for you. Look, I am exactly where you told me to be. 

Let us go there, together, to the farthest edges of the city.  We have so much work to do.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784