“I’m Talking to YOU!”  Shabbat Tazria, Friday, April 1, 2022

It’s said that “the devil is in the details.” But in the case of this week’s Torah portion, the Divine is in the details. God’s message to us comes from some fine points in the language of the parashah for this Shabbat.

Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe v’el Aharon laymor: “God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying….” (Lev. 13:1). Nothing unusual there. God does that a lot, especially in the Book of Leviticus where Aaron’s role as High Priest is elevated. It’s what follows that grabs our attention.

Twenty-seven times in the Torah, we read that God then commanded: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them….” So most of the time, including at the very beginning of this week’s parashah, Leviticus chapter 12, God wants a specific message, a particular mitzvah, communicated to the entire community.

But not this time. At the beginning Chapter 13, God then says:

אָדָם כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ־סַפַּחַת

When an individual has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.

In other words, God goes right for a direct and personal call. Not to “B’ani Yisrael,” the camp in general, but to “Adam” – every individual person. This issue is so important, so crucial to the functioning and the future of the community, that it demands the immediate attention of each and every one of its members. God commands that the message say: “I’m talking to YOU!”  

So: what’s so important here that God chooses this language, which appears only four times in the Torah?

The short answer is: tzora’at. Leprosy. Or any of the scaly skin diseases that might spread among the people.

Tzora’at may indeed have been a scary scourge in those days. But the Torah also uses it as allegory – as a symbol for something that’s far more frightening: Evil, sin, immorality. Something inside a person that is malevolent, so nasty, that it manifests itself on the outside.

Now, in the ancient world, people really did believe that your essence on the inside really did become visible to everybody else on your outside. So if you were showing signs of a serious illness, it was because you must have done something really bad. You wore your transgression like a scarlet A. It’s the presumption that Job’s friends make, when he loses his money, his property, his children – everything. Well, you must have done something wrong, they tell him. Even though that’s really not true.

Job didn’t believe it. And neither do we, these days. Mr. Hyde doesn’t become Dr. Jekyll. But our tradition uses this idea, as it emerges in the Torah this week, to provide a lesson about how we ought to behave in our daily lives. Here’s how it’s laid out in the “Shema Shlomo,” the collected teachings of the 18th-century chassidic master Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, Russia, and his students:

Then he will be brought to Aaron the priest and his sons.” [This is the way our passage begins.] In the case of an outbreak in a house, the Torah has previously stated, “he will come,” implying the person will come to the priest voluntarily. But here [by the time a person’s skin has become white and scaly], why does he have to be brought? Here’s the explanation: According to our Sages, nega’im – outbreaks in one’s home, clothing, or body – are caused by various sins. [The Midrash][1] states: ‘At first nega’im affect one’s home. If the person does not repent, nega’im affect his clothes. If he still does not repent, they affect his body.’ Thus, the first stage is an outbreak in one’s house. At that time, sin has not yet taken deep root within the person, and ‘he will come’ voluntarily to the priest. By the time the outbreak reaches his body, though, he has become so used to his wicked deeds that he sees nothing wrong with them. At that point, he must be brought to the priest by others.”[2]

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a revered 19th-century Lithuanian teacher, was more concise:

“The Talmud tells us that if a person commits a sin once and then a second time, he comes to think of that particular action as permissible. What happens if he commits the same sin a third time? By then, the person comes to regard the sin as a mitzvah, a positive commandment.”[3]

A white lie, cheating a bit on a project, stealing a couple of dollars to buy something you want – that may not seem like a big deal. But the more you cut corners, or take credit for work you didn’t do, or short-change someone with something they’ve paid for, or break a promise to a loved one – the more you do that, the less bad you feel.

The more it just becomes not a big deal, who cares anyway, nobody caught me. So why not do it again? Only now, it’s not just what you do. It becomes who you are. So the way you present on the outside, with your behavior, really does reflect a moral decay on the inside.

Over the past two years, we’ve learned how much we need our communities, how much care we need to show for one another. And what a true blessing that is to the world. And yet, some people have gone in the opposite direction. Hate crime has risen against Asians – and Jews. Cyber criminals are stealing identities from people who need to shop on line. Fraudsters were actually making and selling thousands of fake N-95 masks that did not give people the protection they thought they were getting. Charlatans played on peoples’ fears of illness and distrust of expertise to sell them totally ridiculous “remedies” that were supposed to prevent or cure COVID – including the medicine we give to our dogs every month to protect them against worms.

Recent news reports tell us that fraudsters – people who live among us —  have stolen over 100-billion dollars in COVID relief funds in this country. Money that was supposed to go to small-business people to pay their rent, to pay their employees, to buy their supplies – so that they could take care of their families and the other families that depended on them.

Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney from Michigan, was aghast: “It is the biggest fraud in a generation,” he told NBC News.[4]

And what the fraudsters do with the money that they stole from us? Here’s one report published last year on the “Small Business Trends” web site:

“Millions of dollars of coronavirus relief funds meant to keep employees on the payroll were instead blown on extravagant personal spending sprees — all by a relatively small handful of people. Some of them operated as crime rings as part of the PPP loan fraud schemes they were committing. Loot paid for with PPP loan money included two Lamborghini Huracan sports cars, a Rolex Presidential watch, a 5.73-carat diamond ring, a diamond bracelet, two Tesla cars, a 26-foot Pavati Wake Boat, a 33-foot Cruiser yacht, two Rolls-Royces, a Lamborghini Urus luxury SUV, a Kia Stinger, a Ford F-350 pickup truck, at least three Bentleys, and an assortment of other pricey vehicles and boats. Wads of cash, casino runs and strip club visits also figured in the mix in the PPP loan fraud spree. One defendant was so brazen he allegedly posted a rap video online flashing $100 bills.”[5]

It’s a staggering account. It may be a small number of people we’re talking about here. But they stole a bit. And then a little bit more. And then a lot more. And they indulged themselves and burrowed themselves into their sin so deeply that, after a while, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

That’s the message in these verses. God gives us every chance to repent by starting with the walls of the house. That’s the first warning. If we still act badly, and treat others with contempt, the evolution of evil becomes evident on our clothes.

And if we ignore the second warning, it’s now on us and it’s inside of us. Three strikes and we’re out. We are someone to be ignored, shunned, even exiled from our community. Nobody wants to hang around with a known liar, thief or bully. It becomes a very solitary way to live. And we saw in the pandemic, it can become a criminal way to live. Not all criminals get caught. But there’s payback, one way or another.

Some people look at this part of the Torah and see a message of separation and exclusion. But that’s not what Torah’s trying to teach us. These passages are not about isolating people from the community. They’re about finding ways to keep them in, create conditions to help them return.

But it’s up to each of us, individually. God is talking to YOU. And YOU. And ME. Each of us is responsible for our own behavior, and for the repercussions of that behavior. Each of us is accountable for how we treat others.

 You know, V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – that isn’t just a catch phrase. An old adage. When Hillel the Elder was asked to condense the entire message of our tradition into words he could share while standing on one foot, he declared:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”[6]

Or as God might direct us from the verses we read this Shabbat:

“I am talking to YOU!”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Midrash Rabbah 17:4.

[2] Torah Gems, Volume II Shemot, Vaykra (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/biggest-fraud-generation-looting-covid-relief-program-known-ppp-n1279664. Accessed online March 31, 2022.

[5] https://smallbiztrends.com/2020/08/ppp-fraud.html. Accessed online March 31, 2022.

[6] Bavli Shabbat 31a

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