April 24, 2015
Julia R. Cadrain
If you were living in biblical times, and suffering from a disfiguring skin disease called “tzara’at,” as if simply living with the illness wasn’t bad enough, we read in our portion this week that you were required to leave your home and community – “the camp” – and stay outside until you were cured.
In a way, it was easy to quarantine the infected people because they literally wore evidence of their disease on their face and body – they appeared immediately and obviously different from everyone around them. And because they stood out, they were ostracized, shut out of the camp, until they were cured, or until they looked more like everyone else. Then, it was the job of the priest, the communal leader, to go outside the camp, to the infected people, and once he deemed them healthy again, to bring them home to their families.
If you were living in biblical times and you had this disease, tzara’at, everyone knew it, whether you liked it or not. There was no secrecy around it, and there was no hiding. Today too, there are certain illnesses or differences that change the appearance of the person who has them. And these people, in their own way, are forced outside of the camp. Although we don’t usually ask them to live apart from us, we notice their differences, and react to them, even if that reaction is internal. People with conditions that change their appearance don’t have to tell us about their conditions – we can see them with our eyes.
In reality, we all have things that we hold onto, that we feel set us apart from everyone else – things that make us feel separate from our community, and outside the camp. Sometimes, these are things that aren’t visible to those around us – they are internal secrets that we hold. Maybe your secret is about mental illness – depression, or anxiety. Maybe it’s about addiction. Maybe it’s something about your family of origin – a past that you try to get away from, or hide. Maybe it’s about loving someone of the same sex, or longing for a different gender identity. It could be about feeling like an imposter in some way – for example, people often tell me that they love coming to services at Central, but feel like imposters because they don’t understand Hebrew, or don’t believe in God. Or maybe your secret is about an attitude you have towards someone close to you – how you really feel about your boss, or how you judge your children, or your partner, or your parents. We all have our own stories and secrets, visible or invisible, so maybe for you, it’s something that I didn’t name. But you know what it is.
Having and holding secrets is part of being human. In the book Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, Frida Kahlo’s character says, “the most important thing about a person is the thing you don’t know about them.”
And this idea that we are all hiding in some way is a Jewish one too. We are taught that the blessing we should say upon gazing out at a huge crowd of people is “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, chacham harazim, ” which means, “blessed are you Adonai, knower of secrets.”
So what can we do with the knowledge that we are all people who keep secrets, surrounded by others who have secrets of their own? Well, for one thing, we can be like the priests who leave the camp. We can reach out, leaving a place of safety and security, and bring those who are suffering back in. If you think someone may have a reason for feeling separate and apart, think about what you can do to bring them back in to the fold.
And for those secrets of your own, as LGBTQ activist Ash Beckham shared in a recent TED talk gone viral, “the next time you find yourself in a pitch-black closet, know we have all been there before. And you may feel so very alone, but you are not. And we know it’s hard but we need you out here, no matter what your walls are made of, because I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyholes of their closets looking for the next brave soul to bust a door open, so be that person and show the world that we are bigger than our closets and that a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”
It’s not easy to make yourself vulnerable in this way, but it’s worth it. When we are honest and open with ourselves and with others, we can inspire those around to us to do the same, and we can be fuller and more vibrant versions of ourselves. One of the songs we just sang during the Torah processional, Eileh Chamda Libi, translates in part to, “show your affection to me, and do not hide from me.”
Our affection and love is bigger and brighter when we are not hiding. So this Shabbat, may we each have the courage to draw close those who are drifting, and to come out of our own hiding places. Because this camp is big enough for all of us. Blessed are you Adonai, knower of secrets.