Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell, Didn’t Know
The other day, I overheard a conversation one of my daughters was having with her friend online. She mentioned that another close friend of theirs (let’s call her Jane) had her baby and all was well. I heard the friend shout to her husband that the baby came and everyone’s fine. ‘What baby?’ asked her husband. ‘Jane’s baby’, answered the friend. ‘Jane was pregnant!!?’ asked the husband, ‘why didn’t you tell me??’ The wife gave the answer we’ve all heard to such questions: ‘you didn’t ask.’
Personally, I’ve had occasions of speaking with my mother who updates me on some of my siblings. There have been moments when I hear surprising things. Not surprising because they’re odd or unusual, surprising because I speak with my siblings often and they hadn’t told me. Many a time, I’ve ended up calling that sibling and asking: ‘remember yesterday when I asked you ‘what’s new?’ What did you think I meant?’
And then there’s the information we don’t share because we don’t want to worry the other person, especially these days. I have bad allergies every year. This year, it triggered my taking Covid tests to make sure the symptoms are truly only allergies. Between you and me, when I speak with my mother and she asks me how I’m doing, I’m not disclosing every cough, sniffly nose and sneeze because she will worry (as would I if my child told me that), and the days are challenging as it is. I don’t want to cause a worry in someone else with something that is not worrying me. And so, I decide for them how much information to disclose because I am trying to protect them. It works with everyone except my mother. I have now accepted that she will worry if I don’t tell her all the details, so mothers deserve health disclosures from their children — fair is fair.
But now we live in a world that has brought complex questions about what we can ask someone and what we should expect them to disclose. A recent news story reported that a man who was central to a dating show involving women and the giving of roses has now publicly acknowledged that he’s gay. I wasn’t sure why this was news. I wondered if somehow something hadn’t been disclosed appropriately, but then I realized those kinds of personal questions are private and need not be asked or answered. Once again, I’m left to wonder at the newsworthiness of that disclosure, which brought me to thinking about the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy introduced by the US military concerning the sexual orientation of soldiers.
The policy outlined that anyone could join the US military without being asked about their sexual orientation and they, likewise, had to agree not to ‘tell’, not to disclose it without being asked. Everyone entered ‘an agreement of ignorance’, and now the topic of discrimination based on sexual orientation simply didn’t exist. I find it an interesting transitional moment of not acknowledging there’s a discrimination problem so we can all avoid dealing with it. The policy no longer exists.
In Canada, there is currently a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when it comes to anyone accessing government medical assistance. Don’t ask anyone what their immigration status is, they are under no obligation to tell, and in that way any illegal immigrants will not be afraid to seek help for fear of deportation. In other words, my goal is to protect the person so they can stay safe and healthy.
This week’s Torah portion, parshat Tazria-Metzora, discusses anomalous health issues that arise. Both explainable and mysterious physical conditions, rashes, sores, all the details of leprosy are explored and discussed. It’s a complex reading of ritual, quarantine and resolution. Yet, one of the most profound moments occurs before any of the medical information. The Torah says that when you see something on your body that you haven’t seen before, you must now go and ask an expert. It isn’t your choice.
In Judaism, matters of personal spirituality and belief are private, they are not for public discussion. Whether or not I believe in God, what are my personal spiritual challenges, these are in the ‘don’t ask’ category and it’s up to me ‘to tell’, if I so choose. But when it comes to my physical concerns, I must seek answers to protect myself and to protect others.
It seems like such an obvious statement, but oftentimes people bring this policy into their health moments. On the one hand, teachers have shared that some parents use Tylenol to disguise their child’s questionable symptoms during a pandemic, and on the other hand, we create health blind spots we think help others. Many of us will neglect our own health because we are caring for others, or we don’t want to worry them, or we ourselves prefer not to know.
The Torah has removed our health from the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ possibility. The phrase that repeats most often in these chapters is ‘and he must go and seek’.
It is becoming our norm in this moment in time for us to sit in our homes and wait for the information to be brought to us. The news, the internet, social media, Facebook, all build our understanding that we need not look for information, everything we could ever ask is brought right to us. The Torah reminds us that sometimes the most important information we could ever need to know will only unlock when we remember to ask the question.