What’s Up, Doc?

Parashat Tazria – Parashat haHodesh 5779

by Meir Sendor

Jewish historians have noticed an odd recurring image in a number of medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Pesach Haggadah. Like modern haggadot, these medieval versions are decorated with pictures illustrating the events of the Exodus from Egypt such as the enslavement, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, as well as passages such as the four sons and the songs at the end. But stuck in between these relevant pictures, in quite a few European haggadot, is a scene of hunters with dogs chasing a rabbit. Jews don’t hunt, and would certainly not hunt rabbits, which are not kosher. To add to the mystery, a set of Hebrew letters typically appears in the picture, the same set: יקנה”ז a mnemonic acronym for the order of blessings that are said when Kiddush for Yom Tov is made on Motzaei Shabbat, as it will be this year for the second seder in the Diaspora. These are the first letters of the Hebrew terms for each of these blessings in order: wine, sanctification of the day, candle, havdalah (separation of Shabbat from Yom Tov) and season (the blessing shehecheyanu). In rabbinic literature and discussions this acronym is pronounced like a word – if we transliterate it into English, it would sound like “yaknehaz.”

And this, according to some historians, is the key to the mystery. The way these Hebrew letters are pronounced is close to the Old German phrase “Jag den Hase,” which means “hunt the hare.” So the medieval artists would seem to be having some fun, illustrating the halakhah of which blessings to say for this special Kiddush with a visual pun – a picture of rabbit hunting, improbable and irrelevant to Pesach as it may seem. But this is not the whole answer. In many haggadot, including Sephardic versions, images appear of rabbits, and sometimes deer, being chased, with a caption “ויענונו   — they oppressed us.” And in some cases. the climactic concluding hope and prayer of the haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” is illustrated with a rabbit peaceful and at rest. This has led historians to suggest that the rabbits chased by hunters and dogs in these haggadot stand as a symbol of the Jewish people, hunted, chased but ultimately escaping. Apparently, rabbit hunts were a popular theme in medieval illustrations in general, and the rabbits are sometimes depicted as cleverly escaping their pursuers. The theme persists into the modern period with cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, with telltale Brooklyn accent, relentlessly chased by his nemesis Elmer Fudd, an animation series with a Jewish producer and several Jews in the production team.

As we approach Pesach this year, we can relate. The Jewish people seem to be chased on all sides by motley packs of anti-Semites, leftists, pro-Palestinians and political Islamists. I was distressed to read that the Harvard University Student Council voted this year to give financial support to the week-long demonstrations against Israel promoted by pro-Palestinian groups called “Israel Apartheid Week.” Harvard’s my alma mater, and when I served as Rabbi of the Young Israel of Sharon, we got a crew together on several occasions, joined by a feisty group of Russian Jews from Boston, to protest this annual spring travesty. The pro-Palestinians would parade around an area of Harvard Square and we would parade against them, all of us waving placards and chanting slogans, with a vigilant group of policemen keeping us separated. I remember one year, after hours of marching and shouting, we were all putting our signs away, on both sides, and a thirty-something black woman approached me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she came up to me and said “I want to thank you. I’m from South Africa. I lived through Apartheid and I know what it is. And I know what going on between Israel and the Palestinians, and it is not Apartheid. Not at all. It’s a lie and an insult to call it Apartheid. So I want to thank you for standing up for the truth.” Harvard Student Council, shame on you for buying into cynical defamatory propaganda and cultural misappropriation. Wake up.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the illness tzara’at, a skin disease with psycho-spiritual and somatic aspects. Its chief symptom is patches of white skin and white underlying tissue and it confers a status of ritual impurity on the sufferer, requiring quarantine outside the camp. The Torah and the rabbinic tradition regard it as a consequence of speaking ill of others, using the precious facility of speech for harm. Among the curious halakhic features of this disease is what happens if it progresses so far that the sufferer is covered with it completely, head to toe:

  ויקרא פרק יג

יב) ואם פרוח תפרח הצרעת בעור וכסתה הצרעת את כל עור הנגע מראשו ועד רגליו לכל  מראה עיני הכהן:

יג) וראה הכהן והנה כסתה הצרעת את כל בשרו וטהר את הנגע כלו הפך לבן טהור הוא:

 

If the tzara’at spreads in the skin and covers all the afflicted skin from his head to his feet according to all that appears to eye of the Kohen; and the Kohen looks and behold, the tzara’at covers all his flesh, then he shall declare the affliction pure, it has all turned white, he is pure.

This seems counterintuitive. A skin disease that spreads to cover the entire person, at its most intense, is suddenly considered pure? Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein explains:

תורה תמימה הערות ויקרא פרק יג הערה עג

וטעם הדבר דבעינן שתפרח בכל מקום, משום דענין הטהרה הוי רק אז כשכולו הפך לבן, משום דבאופן כזה מורה שהמחלה יצאה כולה לחוץ הגוף והגוף בפנימיותו בריא, ולכן ממילא בעינן שתפרח בכולו, אחרי שזה מורה על בריאות כל הגוף:

 

The rationale of the matter, that it needs to spread everywhere, is because purification only occurs when it has all turned white, because in this way it indicates that the disease has been expelled entirely outside the body and the inner body is healthy, so it follows that we require that it spread completely, for once this happens it indicates the health of the whole body.

Rabbi Epstein explains the course of the disease in terms of a process of catharsis. When it covers the entire surface of the person it means that the disease has been completely externalized and expelled from the body itself, and this is a sign of inner healing. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Gur adds that the disease of tzara’at, though a consequence of harmful speech, is not merely punitive – it’s intended to stimulate a process of repentance. When a person experiences directly, in their body, the effects of their harmful speech and works to get all the emotional poison out of their system and transform themselves, this total catharsis effects a moral healing. In the Gemara Sanhedrin 97a, this paradigm is applied figuratively to the politics of religion as well:

 

א”ר יצחק, אין בן דוד בא עד שתתהפך כל המלכות למינות, אמר רבא, מאי קרא, כולו הפך לבן טהור הוא

 

Rabbi Yitzhak says “the son of David [the Moshiach] will not come until the entire kingdom has turned into sectarianism.” Rava says “what is the proof-text? ‘It has all turned white, he is pure.’”

The term מינות — “sectarianism” has a complicated history, but the general point is that the political process, too, sometimes works by catharsis. Extremes of negativity, sectarian hatred and violence sometimes shock the body politic to reconsider and realize that there is work to be done to arouse a deeper moral healing. This cathartic principle is also expressed in the Tehillim we say for the day of Shabbat:

 תהלים פרק צב

ז) איש בער לא ידע וכסיל לא יבין את זאת:

ח) בפרח רשעים כמו עשב ויציצו כל פעלי און להשמדם עדי עד:

 

A crude person does not know and a fool does not understand this. When the wicked spring up like grass and all the workers of iniquity flourish, it’s to destroy them forever.

Our world is going through a time of moral and spiritual chaos. Universities, that should be strongholds of free speech and respectful listening and honest moral inquiry have been hijacked and poisoned by the sectarian politics of the Middle East, by cultures that lack democratic experience and advocate narrow tribal unilateralism and violence.  People of good sense and moral compass are being hounded and harassed on all sides. But here and there you can find indications that it’s beginning to dawn on people that this destructive spirit has gone too far. And maybe that “rascally wabbit” will find a way out of this bind and find peace and freedom at last.

3 thoughts on “What’s Up, Doc?

  1. Peter G Berman

    Thank you. Very nice….parenthetically Brown University recently acquired a large number of medieval haggadot…One illustration in particular caught my eye. It depicts Zipporah and Moshe traveling to Egypt…Zipporah is depicted with a facial expression indictating anger and disgust..At first I thought it referrred to the circumcision issue….but perhaps it also reflects on Zipporah attitude toward this unexpected turn in her life. She is the daughter of the midian high priest , a member of the local ruling class. Now she is expected to move to Egypt to live in some slave quarter while her husband plays out a rather weird vision of of his divine historical mission.

    1. Rabbi Meir Sendor

      Yes, Peter, we husbands often drag our long-suffering wives into our quixotic adventures. Thankfully for us and the rest of the world, Moshe Rabbenu’s turned out well. Thanks for your comment!

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