Illness and Expiation

This week’s Torah portion, Ta’azria, offers a detailed description of tzara’at – a scaly skin affliction that is understood to render the afflicted as ritually impure (in Hebrew, “tamei.”) The portion makes it clear that the well-being of the entire community is potentially affected by this illness unless and until the High Priest performs certain rituals that will return the individual to a state of ritual purity (“taharah”).

While this portion has nothing to teach us about an appropriate understanding of how to treat physical illness, it has traditionally been understood as a profound statement on the ways that “spiritual infection” can potentially afflict a community. (For their part, the Rabbis famously interpreted the illness of tzara’at as a metaphor for the infectious social effects of destructive speech.)

There are so many ways a community can become infected from within – on this Shabbat, which falls on the 40th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am particularly mindful of the insidiously infectious power of racism – and how little we Americans have done to truly expiate it from our midst.

In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy forty years ago, Bobby Kennedy, then campaigning for President, delivered a speech in Indianapolis in which he passionately addressed the national “illness” that resulted in King’s death:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

The next day, cities all over the United States went up in flames. Kennedy himself would be assassinated two months later. Forty years later, our national community awaits expiation.

To see and hear Kennedy’s speech in its entirety, click above.

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