Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Learning from Mistakes!

I grew up near the boardwalk in the Rockaways of New York. Summer brought many Jews from the city out our way to enjoy the cooler temps. Some of them were observant, most were not.
One Shabbat afternoon my friend Irv and I took a walk to the boardwalk. It was always an exciting place to be...filled with small store fronts selling knishes and 'kosher' hot dogs...and of course the arcades filled with games of every kind. And while it was Shabbat it was a neat place to just walk around and enjoy the energy.

But this one Shabbat was memorable for me. As we walked an older man stopped us. He engaged us with a Yiddish accent. No doubt he noticed our yarmulkes and dress. He asked "boys are you shomer shabbos?" We said "yes".
He replied with only these words, and though I was then a boy of 9 years old I never forgot them, he said, "when you grow up you won't be!".

In this weeks Parsha we have the laws of the metzora. The metzora is mandated to live outside the camp of Israel. He is made to dress as a person in cherem, excommunication. He needs to grow his hair out. His clothes are to be torn. And the Torah tells us that he is to call out to anyone who may come his way "tamay! tamay!" meaning "impure! impure!

The sages explain the need for the leper to call out is to warn people not to come in contact with him and thereby become ritually unclean.

While all the laws of the ritual leper are inscrutable this law fascinates me. I mean is it not enough that the metzora has to endure all the shame associated with his disease. In the tradition he gets the leprosy as a punishment for lashon hara, speaking evil, even if true, of another person. He is cast out, dishonored, shamed. And lets not fool ourselves he may be the one with the disease but the speaking of loshon hara is a sin virtually everyone is guilty of. He is the one suffering for it! He must endure so much humiliation. And its not enough!
He must call out " I am impure! I am impure!

And yet I suspect in the lepers commitment to make sure that others do not become impure even as he is suffering, he earns his kaparah, atonement. In the fact that he wants others to be not like him he shows character and love for the very people his evil talk may have harmed.
Unlike the Jew in the story of my youth who so unsettled me, not because he was not observant, but because he seemed to need that we too would not keep the Shabbat, the metzora wants that others not suffer as he has, not become unclean as he has.

I will tell you another story, one I witnessed years later when I was a young rabbi in a small Southern town. Marty was a recent baal teshuva. He would walk a long ways to shule on Shabbat. Mr. Sugarman was an old Jew who lived too far from the shule to walk. He was from the old country. Like the man in the first story he too had a Yiddish accent.

One Shabbat Marty was walking to shule and he noticed Mr Sugarman pass him in his car as he was driving to shule. When Marty finally got to shule he said to Mr Sugarman " I saw you this morning". Mr Sugarman replied, " I saw you too". Marty said, "so why didn't you stop". And Mr Sugarman answered " I was afraid you would take a ride!".

How different the two stories. In both cases the men involved we not keeping the Shabbos. In both cases they knew the difference. In the first case however the man needed to feel that I too would be like him to mollify his guilt on desecrating the Shabbos. In the second Mr Sugarman felt "if I can't be as I should at least let me make sure I don't mislead others".

Thats the message of the metzora. And its not an easy one to embrace. Most of us think too frum is just more than us; too liberal just less than us. We all have our chesronot, shortcomings.
Where do we act like the metzora acknowledge our flaw and warn others 'not to be like us'? When do we do like Mr Sugarman and say "true enough I am not as I should be...please don't follow me!"

It takes courage to call out "I am impure!" " I am impure!". It takes a large measure of humility.
Yet I for one admire the Mr Sugarmans of the world much more than those who act as if they are without flaw and have no warning to give. One can learn as much from a persons mistakes as from there successes, if only they will admit to them!

How many a parent might well teach their child so much more if they would share where they failed as well as where they succeeded, what they have struggled with as well as what they have overcome. How many a teacher would model more by sharing not only how 'good' they are, but how human!

We are all flawed. The metzora is each of us. The lessons universal. Why pretend!

Its great to back in Eretz Yisrael....Shabbat Shalom!

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