Friday, April 28, 2017

Parashat Metzorah, or When to Ask for More Spoons

Once Rabbi Elimelekh had his friend Rabbi Mendel as a guest for dinner. As it happened, that night, Rabbi Elimelekh’s servant forgot to set out a spoon at Rabbi Mendel’s place. Everyone was eating except Rabbi Mendel, who sat looking at his soup. The Tzaddik observed this and asked: Why aren’t you eating? Well, said Rabbi Mendel, I don’t have a spoon.
Look, said Rabbi Elimelekh, one must know enough to ask for a spoon, and a plate too, if need be!
There are two ways to look at this story. One is that Rabbi Elimelekh should have made sure that Rabbi Mendel had a spoon. Quite rude and unwelcoming. But the other is Rabbi Elimelekh’s point; that Rabbi Mendel, seeing his situation, should have asked self-advocated, and asked for help. We can’t wait for someone to notice whether we’re in distress; we have to ask.
And here’s the thing; we’re not good at asking for help. We’re great at offering help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited someone in the hospital after surgery and asked if they wanted the caring committee to reach out, only to be told with a dismissive wave of the hand that they used to be on the caring committee. We’re happy to be the one who supports; we’re less thrilled to be on the receiving end. Maybe it feels infantilizing, or as Americans, it feels weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that our tradition teaches us that the point of being in community is as much to have a shoulder to lean on as it is to offer that shoulders to others. And that no one is keeping score. We see that in our torah portion, which talks about a person with Tzaraat; sometimes called leprosy but really some kind of spiritual skin disease. We are told right at the beginning that as soon as a priest hears about the person having tzaraat, he’s to go to that person outside the camp to address his needs. This tells us that someone had to tell the priest, and that the priest has to go to that person as soon as he hears of their suffering. I know that sounds self-evident, but too often I find that we’d rather suffer in silence or hope someone notices that we don’t have a spoon than admit frailty and get the help and support they need. And when we close ourselves off like that, in a way, we push our friends away, we tell them that we don’t trust them to be there for us. And we tell ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love and support.

Rabbi Mendel deserves a spoon. The metzorah—the person with tzaraat—deserves to be seen by the priest, to have his illness attended to so he can reenter the camp. And we are deserving of love and support. But sometimes, folks, we have to ask. Let’s be brave enough, trusting enough, to do so. Amen. 

1 comment:

  1. There's a different way to look at this, still compatible with the message of the parsha and other parts of Tanach. People in distress seek out advice. The people in the hospital are there because a doctor put them there. People go to attorneys, they call the police, and they make appointments with their rabbis or Catholics go to confession. They seek out experts who can extricate them from their situation. Poor Job in our own Bible just sat around with well meaning friends who told him that his misfortunes must have been of his own doing. We still mourn out Temples, being told it was our own fault for Avodah Zarah or Sinach Chinam. And in the 17th century there was a school of thought that the Chemelniski pogroms were attributable to talking too much in the synagogue on Shabbos. None of this really provides solutions that people seek. At least the Kohen diagnosing Tzara-at had a credential that gave him credibility, though they were not above blaming the victim either.

    What we are seeing in our own decade is the devaluing of expertise in favor of camaraderie or the illusion of the ability to improve somebody's lot. The majority of the electors last fall may have bought into that argument. Vote for me and I will solve your problem even though I lack the ability to solve your problem. There is a recent book by Tom Nichols for which I am on the Brandywine Library waiting list on the trends in marginalizing and devaluing experts. Look forward to reading it when it's my turn.

    Have a great Shabbos.