Parashat Metzora

Making Room for the Leper

When we embrace with one hand but push away with the other, it's the push that remains in lasting memory.

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I wonder what would have happened had the people in the Torah embraced those whom they saw as stricken with the malady of tzaraat rather than forcing them to live outside the camp. I wonder what would have happened had the priest refused to place them outside of the camp and instead helped the people to understand that the Jewish community cannot and should not act that way. I wonder what would happen today in the Jewish community were we to embrace those on the periphery rather than forcing them even further away.

The Contemporary Challenge

I am reminded of a graduate and now spokeswoman of our Mothers Circle program--for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children--who receives the same first question whenever she presents to Jewish groups: if she is already leading a Jewish life, why not just convert to Judaism?

She responds, "Perhaps had the community and my future in-laws embraced me when I first started dating my husband, I might have done just that. But they didn't. They pushed me away. And now I question whether I will ever be fully accepted, even as a convert." When we embrace with one hand but push away with the other, it's the push that remains the lasting memory.

This Torah portion occurs in Leviticus, the book of the Torah that is so core to Jewish communal life that it is studied first in classical Jewish curricula. Its behaviors--the rules and regulations that generally guide us as a community--set the foundation for what follows. So it is Leviticus that informs all of the books in the Torah. Should it not be the one to guide us in relating to the growing numbers of those who are on the fringe of the community?

But the general sense of Leviticus is contained in this statement: "The stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:34) rather than in the notion to push people away. The Torah provides us with options, two different approaches in Leviticus.

So rather than pushing away as the Torah recorded the ancient actions of our ancestors regarding those with tzaraat, let us open our tent wider to allow them in. Why? Because meaningful Jewish life is not found outside of the community. It is found in our midst. That is why we have chosen to live here. It is finally time to make room for others to do so as well. Our future as a Jewish community depends on it.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.