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“Redemption,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

April 8, 2022 | 7 Nisan 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we make our way to Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

A Torah portion about leprosy and an upcoming holiday about redemption will lead us toward salvation. How could this be so?

Passover arrives next week just in time to push us into the season of our freedom. We tell the story of slavery, of degradation and through a specified ritual, the seder, we march right into the glorious exaltation of dignity, through the metaphorical sea to arrive on the other side. We set aside a cup for Elijah and invoke his name and presence since he will herald in a messianic time of peace and goodness. We will taste, drink, ask, and sing. We will turn our “mourning into dancing,” as the Psalmist exclaimed.

But first, we have to get past leprosy.

This week’s portion, called Metzora places the skin ailment at the center even as it creates concentric circles of exclusion and expulsion from the core of the community for the one diagnosed with it. It begins with God instructing Moses on the ritual at the time that he is to be purified. (Lev. 14: 1). Though the leper may have been sent outside of the camp in last week’s portion, this week will provide the way back in with reintegration following recovery.

Though the treatment of the leper may conflict with our sensibilities about how one should regard a person with such an illness, the ancients understood the need for separation. We would have great reason to criticize if the text did nothing more. The attention is not actually on the exile but rather how and when to reconnect the person with community and to ensure re-entry.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) adds another layer with a story that brings together the leper, Elijah, and redemption.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: When will the Messiah come? Elijah said to him: Go ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting? Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him? Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.

The rabbi in the story imagined encountering Elijah knowing that Elijah brings the possibility of redemption. Yet, what does he discover? The messiah is already here and hanging out with those who are ill and are placed at the gates of the city. They are not inside of it but rather in the space outside. While they bind up their wounds removing and replacing their bandages, the messiah joins with them but employs a different method to ensure preparedness for the moment of redemption.

How will we prepare for redemption? This week’s Torah portion prepares us to enter Pesach with our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds attuned to those who may be set apart and need to be brought in. The intersection of Metzora, this week’s Torah portion, with next week’s magnificent holiday of Pesach is how each of us is an agent of redemption. We can’t leave it to someone else. It’s on us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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