This week, everything goes to hell.
You thought last week was bad, with its devastating curse of 40 years of desert wandering? This week the whole mission is threatening to fall apart.
Now is the summer of our discontent.
For the next five weeks, we will be touring through some of the darkest chapters in the Israelites’ long desert journey. And one theme will dominate these parshot above all: dissatisfaction.
Asceticism - the idea that physical pleasure stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment - has a long and storied history in the annals of religious thought. All the great religious traditions have some expression of it, including such practices as: fasting, celibacy, sleep-deprivation, wearing simple clothing, poverty, and even - in the most extreme cases - the active pursuit of pain.
But Judaism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the uncomfortable life. While it is always impossible to define a single, official Jewish theology, it seems fair to say that most modern Jews have inherited a basic assumption that Jewish tradition - from the Garden of Eden on - regards the physical world as a fundamentally good place, full of things that are meant to be enjoyed by human beings.
In the 1981 classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones discovers that the Nazis are in search of the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes holds powers that will make his army invincible. They eventually get ahold of it, and in the climactic scene when they finally open the Ark, a shimmering electric mist begins to slowly emanate from it. The specter gathers in force and aggression, and, as the Nazi leaders look on, transfixed… their faces melt off and their heads explode!
All week, I’ve been thinking about this book, “A Driven Leaf,” by Milton Steinberg.
Parshat Kedoshim - which begins with the famous injunction, “you shall be holy” - includes a series of warnings against all kinds of horrifying idolatrous practices, replete with gory description: eating blood; gashing the flesh of dead bodies; passing children into fire. Part of what it takes to “be holy,” it seems, is to stay away from these strange cultic rituals.
We Jews, who have been perennial outcasts, ought to read the Torah’s account of the leper with particular care.
Throughout history, lepers have been demonized and feared, quarantined, and often even physically sent out of society, to go and live in leper colonies. It’s hard to fathom a more extreme version of the outcast. Surely, then, there is something in the leper’s story that we need to know.