Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell, Didn’t Know

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.

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

We’ve all had the experience of driving somewhere and noticing traffic is slowing down for no apparent reason.  Eventually it becomes clear that there’s a traffic accident ahead.  Everyone slows down, traffic crawls but most of the traffic bottleneck is not caused because of the actual accident but because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident.  Exactly what are we all looking for?

It is one thing to slow down because something unusual has happened on the road and you want to be cautious with your driving, things might be obstructing your lane.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.  Usually it is that driving has momentarily turned into a spectator sport.  We are watching the accident, taking in the vehicular damage and noticing if there are any injuries.  Helping someone who needs it might be our original intent in slowing down but, if help has already arrived, why are we still slowing down?  We have become spectators.

There is a German word, ‘schadenfreude’, which describes the pleasure someone derives from the suffering of another.  It refers to the passive pleasure, not relating to anyone who causes the suffering of another – ‘schadenfreude’ refers to the spectator.  It is not someone who is curious or questioning what is happening, it is the person who knows there is suffering and wants to observe from the peripherals, feels pleasure for knowing they are better off at this moment.  It is a dark side of the human condition.

I remember being in Israel when I was a student and sitting in a ‘monit’, a public taxi car, travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  Along the highway there was an accident where we could see cars stopped on the grass between the inbound and outbound lanes.  There were also people lying on the ground and a few people sitting there.  No one was moving.  Our taxi pulled over to the side of the road as did all the cars driving in both directions but no one got out of their cars.  I was confused about what was happening and I asked the driver if we were getting out to help.  He said, ‘not yet’.  We waited a few more minutes, as did everyone else in all the cars that had stopped.  I asked the person sitting next to me why no one is getting out to help and he said we’re all waiting to make sure it’s real.  It took me a minute to understand that what we were all seeing could actually be a trap — an ambush — to draw in as many civilians as possible before the actual attack occurs.  In other words, use our compassion for each other as a weapon against us.  Another dark side of the human condition.

A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about his motorcycle trip through the Galilee in Israel.  For anyone who’s travelled those roads, you know they twist and turn through the mountains, sometimes with no shoulder or little space between the narrow road and the deep valley drop at the side.  My friend was riding his motorcycle on one of these roads as several cars were trying to pass him because he wasn’t going fast enough.  The roads are narrow and each car that passed him squeezed him closer to the edge of the pavement, onto the gravel and, eventually, off the road and down the steep incline into the valley below.  He told me all the cars immediately stopped and everyone suddenly ran down into the valley, each identifying to the other whether there was a medic among them, perhaps a doctor.  He said everyone immediately drew on their first aid training (this is Israel) and he was quickly secured, checked, assured he would be ok and help was on the way.  His injuries were minor and he profusely thanked everyone who came to his assistance.  Then it occurred to him that these were the same people who had run him off the road in the first place.  His gratitude turned to anger turned back to gratitude turned back to anger…  The grey side of the human condition.

The Torah parshah this week, Vayera, tells us of the story of Lot, his family and the citizens of Sodom and Gemmorah.  As God is destroying the region, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are being escorted to safety by an angel.  The one thing they have been told not to do is to not look backwards at Sodom.  Just as it looks like all is well for them, Lot’s wife turns to look over her shoulder at the city she has left behind, Sodom.  She is turned to salt.  In all of Torah and all of Jewish text, this is the only time that happens.  It is both powerful and baffling.  Why the strong instruction not to look back?  How is it so severe that it will cost her everything, her very life? 

The problem with looking back on Sodom as it is burning is that everyone in Lot’s family is already safe.  Lot’s wife is turning from the vantage of safety to watch the suffering of others.  She does not plead for them, she does not bargain or cry out, she stands and observes.  She has become the spectator.  The ethics of Sodom would support the passive observation of the suffering of others as a pastime but Judaism does not.  Lot’s wife is turned to salt, the ancient world’s substance for preserving things.  She is forever preserved in her choice of ethics.  By watching others suffer, taking no stance against it, while enjoying her safety, she has preserved the ethics of Sodom.  We should not focus on her as being punished but as sending the message that these dark sides of the human condition should stay in the fires of Sodom.

There are some places in the world today where someone is obligated by law to stop and help someone in distress.  Other places do not legally obligate anyone to stop.  Interestingly, there are places which do not obligate anyone to stop, but if you choose to stop, you are now obligated to help.  Part of this is to prevent the misunderstanding that could occur when someone sees someone else stopping to help.  I would assume the person who has stopped will help and therefore I don’t need to stop.  I would assume the person who has stopped will call 911 and therefore I don’t need to call 911 — resulting in nobody calling 911.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a benefit of this law could be that we don’t build a culture of passively watching another’s suffering.  

Unfortunately, traffic accidents are common on our roads.  We will slow down to preserve safety and we should watch to make sure help has arrived.  Once we know that has happened, Judaism then tells us to put our eyes forward and allow people who are vulnerable to have their privacy and their dignity in this moment.  Let Lot’s wife stand and stare.

Have you ever wondered what all these books Rachael refers to are? Been curious about the differences between them and what they’re each used for?

Join us on November 17th for a shiur event – a 45 minute class presented by Rachael – to learn the answers to these questions. Information and registration can be found on our Learning Page.