A Metaphor for the Human Condition
by Jhos Singer
I just returned from leading the JCCSF annual Staff Israel Seminar. This year was a two-week marathon—each day we covered a whiplash-inducing spectrum of ideas and ideologies, people and places, beliefs, and visions.
We arrived at night and drove 3 hours south so we could wake up in the desert. In the spirit of gam zu l’tovah (even this is for the good) the very first activity had to be changed because of flash floods that had washed out the trail we were going to hike. Instead, we found ourselves slogging through a magical if muddy route that meanders along what is usually a very dry streambed. Well-exercised and warmed up, we next visited a group home for street youth who come to the desert to revive their tattered souls—through tending animals or the garden, talking and singing, opening up and breaking down, the kids rebuild themselves one encounter at a time. Hungry now, our 36-seat coach under the expert handling of our driver, Koby, made its way along a skinny, steep, and winding dirt road—better suited for goats than a tour bus—to have lunch with Salman, a Bedouin activist, in his village. As he was telling us about the struggles he faces trying to bring solar panels to the village, he casually buried a slab of dough in the embers and ashes of a fire, where the bread baked perfectly and formed the foundation stone of our meal. From there we went into the Machtesh (Crater) of Mitzpe Ramon, created when a primordial sea drained and rearranged the landscape, leaving behind layers and layers of geological stories. We ate dinner in a hipster vegan club-like gathering place and then went back out into the desert to view the night sky. And it was evening, and it was morning: Day One.
The next 11 days continued like that—each day a multi-faceted encounter with Israel’s geography, sociology, bibliography, technology, and religiosity; her cuisine, culture, craft, consciousness, and conflicts: the people, politics, policy, pollution, and problems; the ecology, economy, ethnicities, ethics… Layer upon layer of human innovation and struggle, accomplishment and survival, has marked and marred the region for millennia. Each generation has carved stones, crafted settlements, and changed the landscape with its remnants. Entire societies have been erected and buried there. One story yields to the next, and the next. Nothing and no one lasts on the surface forever.
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33), presents a graphic metaphor for the human condition: dermatitis. It prescribes a purification process for a when a person’s skin—his surface, her topmost layer— or clothing or home is marked, blemished, or disrupted by an oozing lesion of some sort. The mere fact that the Torah doesn’t stop with the skin, but includes its immediate mantle as well as the more remote covering of walls, indicates that this portion is talking about more than dermatological pathology. Rather, it is about change and memory—the unsettling, disorienting, and destabilizing nature of change and the restorative power of memory. Every human body is in a state of change from the day we are born until we die—we shape-shift and age; we grow and shrink; and finally, we return to the earth, we are covered over, a small contribution to the earth’s crust. Our clothes wear out and get discarded. Our houses will crumble. The Torah asks us to take note of these changes. It directs our spiritual path towards wholeness, even as our bodies are coming apart. Because eventually, what has erupted on the surface is merely a reminder that while nothing stays the same, what was, is, and will be is all part of the whole.
The modern day state of Israel is a study in change and stasis, beauty and blemish. It’s land’s surface is pockmarked by wars ancient and modern, the past oozes up creating lesions of revealed history in the countryside, its homes are dis-eased and demolished, and sacrifices are made constantly in an age-old attempt at achieving purity. Its ruins remind us of despotic regimes and grandiose vision, oases inexplicably mar the desert’s complexion, peacemakers and miracle workers stand against tyrannies past, present, and—I’d wager a bet—well into the future.
Let us remember to look past the surface. Let us find healthy curiosity when confronted by things we don’t immediately understand. Let us accept our impermanence. But before we settle into our final layer, let us fight like hell for healing.