I remember very little about my actual bar mitzvah. I don’t remember the name of the Rabbi, or either of the two other kids I was becoming bar mitzvah with. I remember who I invited, and I also remember the two girls that were tormenting me from the front row as I sat on the bima, nervous and unsure of what I was about to do. Also, I remember my Torah portion was Tazria-Metsorah (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), the worst Torah portion. It is three sections, all about impurity around childbirth, genital excretions, and an extended section on how to do deal with a metsorah, someone with the skin disease tsera’at, which resembles leprosy, but involves more strange hair growth and pigment change. This disease is cured by all kinds of crazy magical rituals, including being separated from society for eight days, and eventually being anointed with oil.
In retrospect, this could have been a great talking point for me. When I was 11 my family moved to Coral Springs, Florida from Tacoma, Washington, and I more often than not felt like I was some kind of outcast with a skin disease. What it was about me that kids didn’t like is still unclear to me, but it often led me to be ostracized and beaten up. I recovered to the point that I had a healthy swath of the middle school social scene present at my bar mitzvah party (a swimming pool party at my parents’ house), though, including a group of downtrodden proto-goths. One of these was a girl I had an on again off again relationship with, but I believe it was entirely off at this point. These kids had not brought their bathing suits to the swimming party, and instead decided they would spend their time slowly making their way through the helium of the balloons that had been set up. After having my request for them to stop rebuffed I summarily cast them out of the party. Upon reflection I’m not exactly sure how I did it, or if I made a big scene of it. I very well may have done this as a deft 13-year-old move for social cache. No matter my method they were out of there. And that’s pretty much all I remember.
On Friday I was asked by a colleague at work to give the drash at our staff kiddish in place of someone who decided not to show up for their turn at the helm. I had about an hour to prepare but I decided I’d do it, especially since it was coincidentally Tazria-Metsorah once again. I also just so happened to have read the whole parshat on the way to work out of curiosity, so I was already a little prepared. I proceeded to read the haftarah portion, and found that those mysterious fellas that created the haftarah series had done an awesome job this time.
The haftarah portion (2Kings 7:3-20) is all about five guys that have tsera’at, called metsoraim. These metsoraim were outside the city gates of Samaria, as they had to be separated from the main population to prevent the spreading of their disease. It just so happened that the Arameans had laid siege to Samaria, and everyone was starving, so these metsoraim decided that they’d head to the Aramean camp and surrender in hopes of being fed. As the men walked towards the Aramean camp God made the Arameans hear the noise of chariots, huge armies, and horns. The Arameans panicked and fled, leaving an empty camp for the metsoraim to just wander into and pillage. They ate their fill, took a whole bunch of silver and gold and hid it for later, and then returned to Samaria to tell everyone that there was a huge amount of food just waiting in the now-abandoned Aramean camp.
In my drash I used this story of the diseased outcasts playing a role in society as important as this as an argument for the importance of the multitude of facets of society. The previous night, Bill Clinton had spoken at the synagogue I work at, and the main theme of his talk was the need for a greater communitarianism in the global society. Through the lens of tsera’at and the haftarah portion, I pointed out the inherent tension between Clinton’s idea of global communitarianism and the reality of individualized identities and roles throughout the multitude of cultures.
Who knows why God would wait until these five outcasts were walking towards the Aramean camp to scare the Arameans off, but that’s how the story recounts it. It seems relatively clear that the guys that created the haftarah system were attempting to make some kind of statement about how even the metsoraim had an important role in God’s plan here. These individuals who needed to be separated from society for eight days due to their uncleanness were still used by God as a tool to help the entirety of the biggest city in the Northern Kingdom.
Unfortunately there’s no such resolution for my 13-year-old politicking. I don’t think the proto-goths ever spoke to me again after this. On the same note I didn’t become a more popular social powerhouse at my middle school. In fact, I pretty much didn’t associate with anyone from middle school, and made friends with a bunch of high schoolers. I think my bar mitzvah party speaks volumes about human nature when it comes to insiders, outsiders, and bridging that gap between the leprous and the anointed. If we look at the Torah portion as a ritualistic ideal for society when it comes to the metsoraim, and the haftarah portion as a narrative-style commentary on the actual role of metsoraim in Israelite society, we see a definite progression. These metsoraim are put in a position of liminality due to their unclean state, and due to this state of liminality they are available to be used by God as a mode for driving off the Arameans. Rather than simply being a group of pathetic turncoats, God turns these metsoraim into a wild threat confused by the Arameans as being the great militaries of the Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms of the time. They used their turn of luck to enrich both themselves and the city. I, on the other hand, in my tyrannous tweens, used my briefly gained social cache to turn on the pariahs of the group myself. On this day, I was the one that could cast people out and flex my muscle.
I wonder which is more likely in the global community that President Clinton was referring to. Are the powerful within humanity more likely to act in the prophetic tradition found in the book of Second Kings, that of turning power structures on their head for the good of everyone? Or are they more likely to behave like a newly-adulted tyrant, ready to abuse their power as soon as they are able? I hope that humanity as a collective race is capable of maturing beyond the basic impulses of the overzealous tween, but I fear, based on simple observation of global politics, that we are still trapped in our selfish drive towards greater and greater individual empowerment.
As President Clinton pointed out in his speech, we are at a turning point. We’re rocking 7 billion on this planet right now, running out of the resources we’ve counted on to keep ourselves fed and comfortable, and our population growth isn’t looking like it’s going to slow down. If we continue to echelon ourselves into insiders and outsiders, the clean and the unclean, we’ve got the capacity to create untold human misery. On the other side of the coin if governments create a top-down enacted homogenization of societies by enforcing some kind of general equality or “us-ness” throughout the world what would we do when situations that require the liminal, the metsoraim, to be present outside of the general population to act in a way that no one locked inside could possibly conceive of? The Jews have been one of these populations throughout history, and in some ways continue to play that role today. As we become more accepted in societies and cultures around the world, though, we have begun to lose this outsider stance. Especially for the majority of Reform Jews in America the differentiating lens of outsider worldview has been more or less lost. This is one of the greatest challenges for the leaders of Reform Judaism today – how do we maintain our distinct and separate identity while being welcomed with open arms into the center culture of America? Should we even? I think that our ability as Jews to maintain our identity throughout the ages speaks to its remarkable quality. As the world globalizes, and our 8 days on the outside of society ends, we ourselves need to decide whether we wish to keep our one foot in, one foot out stance with the general population. In fact, it may be incumbent upon us to be the ones to keep an eye on the powers that be, to admonishing them to both allow for the metsoraim of the world to exist, rather than to take their newfound mastery to the greatest extreme.