Rabbi finds parashat a call to action: ‘We must not remain indifferent’

BY RABBI JIM BENNETT

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua, the son of Levi, is said to have once asked the prophet Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah answered “Go and ask him yourself. He can be found at the gate of the city, sitting among the sick, binding up their wounds, one by one.” (Tractate Sanhedrin).

What of us? What are we doing in the meantime — what are we doing to bring a time of redemption? Do we shun the sick and wounded in our midst, or do we, too, find them and sit with them, binding up their wounds, one at a time?

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This week’s Torah portions, Tazria-Metzora, recounts, among other things, the biblical law regarding one who suffers from the disease known as “tzara-at,” traditionally considered to have been leprosy. The highly contagious affliction must have been frightening to the ancient Israelite community, who surely considered mysterious skin ailments, growths and fungal infections to be a punishment from the Divine.

The solution required isolation, ritual, and cautious re-entry into society once the afflicted was deemed to have been cured. Yet the people did care for the sick. They made sure that all had access to the care they needed. These ancient verses call upon us today to make sense of their call to action. I believe they call us to act to provide for the health care of every member of our society, as our ancient forebears did in their own way.

Rabbi Joshua sought to understand how to have faith in the midst of doubt. “When will the Messiah come?” he asked. “When will things get better?” Elijah offered him hope: “Things could already be better, if only you will emulate the Messiah. Don’t just sit there. Do something.”

It is not enough to send the ill of our time outside the city gates and wait for them to be cured and then to allow them to return. It is not enough for us to bemoan the problems with our health care system today, to accept poverty and injustice and hope that the poor will pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is not enough to imagine that the wealth of the few will trickle down to benefit the many. It is not enough to make sure that our own needs are met and to ignore the millions who do not have access to affordable health care or insurance. Waiting for things to get better, for diseases and medical conditions to go away, for the problems of poverty and injustice to right themselves, waiting for some external redemption to come — all of these lead to futility. “If it is to be, it is up to me.” A time of messianic redemption is not likely to come if we are passive — we must bring redemption.

We must go to the gates of the city and find those who suffer, and bandage their wounds one by one. We must seek out those who cannot afford health insurance or access to even basic medical care. We must acknowledge the injustice that plagues our society and keeps us from our higher selves and do what we can to rectify them. We must not remain indifferent, but must become activists. Our tradition demands it. Our world needs it. Then, and only then, will redemption come.

Rabbi Jim Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth.