Lepers or Not? Dangerous or Not? The Bonds of Friendship

April 12th: Shabbat Hagadol and Metzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Why is leprosy a subject fit for the Torah? Why are the priests the ones to inspect and determine whether a rash is leprosy, or whether some mold is leprosy of the house? The ancients believed that, since everything is part of God’s Creation, every aspect of life is in the religious realm. And, since the priests were trained in diagnostic techniques—“distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, to teach the Israelites…” (Leviticus 10.10-11), the priests were the ones best able to tell whether an outbreak was dangerous or not.

Danger is the salient factor, and the priest’s job is to ascertain the possible contagion and deal with it. If the outbreak on the skin is leprosy and therefore contagious and dangerous, then separation is required. If it is not leprosy and therefore neither contagious nor dangerous, then separation is not required.

The same could be said for people. Whether we are talking about Central Americans seeking to come into the United States, or Palestinians living in Judah and Samaria, or any other case of otherness, the salient question is whether the other poses a danger. If it/they do not, then extending the hand of friendship is the proper thing to do. If they do pose a danger, however, then we have the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves. Much depends on the result of our determination: is the other dangerous or just a slightly different version of us?

When we talk about immigration to the United States or the proper policy for Israel to pursue in regard to the Palestinians, we are blessed with the fact that we are part of the majority deciding the most judicious course of action. Let us not forget, however, that we Jews have often been the other and very much at the mercy of those in power. Sometimes, things have been good, but, sometimes, things have been very, very bad. We know that we have never been a danger to Christians or Muslims, but many times, they thought the opposite. The fact that we dared to have a different religion challenged some Christians and Muslims so much that they could not abide it.

How blessed we are, then, to live in a time and place where interfaith relations have improved so much. Today, we can stand together with our neighbors of different faiths and backgrounds, sharing friendships and working on mutual interests. The last 150 years of interfaith work has been wonderfully successful, and we all feel the benefits.

But, the progress is not universal, and terrible things still happen. While we are affected by every outrage against Jews, the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh last October seemed to hit us harder. How wonderful it was that our friends and neighbors voiced support for us in our time of tragedy, filling our synagogue with some 600 people who wanted us to know that we are treasured citizens of this community. Our Muslim neighbors experienced a similar trauma a few weeks ago—with the tragic news from New Zealand, and they were similarly comforted when hundreds of non-Muslims joined them in prayer and reflection, reminding them that they too are treasured friends and neighbors.

We do our best to spread the spirit of respect and friendship, and we extend the hand of care and comfort when sadness and fear come into our friends’ lives.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, a group of local Christians decided to make a formal gesture of affirmation for the Jewish community, and the fruition of their plan is happening this week. Each year, in observance of Palm Sunday, a group of local Christians participates in a Peace March, going from congregation to congregation and reflecting on the Gospel of Peace: that part of the Christian tradition that encourages love, respect, and kindness. Most participants are from what are called Peace Churches: Mennonites, United Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quakers). It is their way of ushering in the Easter season.

This year, the organizers want to extend the hand of support and friendship to us—realizing that many in the Christian tradition over the centuries have been less than peaceful or friendly. They want to include a stop at the synagogue in their Peace March, and they want to make a statement about their remorse at Christian anti-Semitism in the past and their commitment to good interfaith relations in the future.

So, this next Sunday, April 14th, they are coming to visit us. The Peace March starts at 3:00, and there are several stops before us. The estimate is that they’ll arrive around 5:00, but I suggest we gather around 4:30 just to make sure we are waiting for them. There will be some meditations about the need for healing from anti-Semitism, some statements of friendship and support, AND they are giving us a tree—a tree to symbolize the growth of goodwill and respect.

Please join us for this brief ceremony, as we accept our neighbors’ gestures and good will. It will mean a lot to them. It will mean a lot for tikkun olam, the Repair of the World.