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Metzora, Shabbat HaGadol, Homelessness – 4/13/19

Parashat Metzora, much like last week’s parashah – Tazria, is one of those parshiot that is really tough for moderns / post-moderns to understand.  It’s gross, it’s icky, it deals with skin disease, bodily fluids and emissions – lots of things we don’t discuss in polite company let alone from the bimah.  And yet, each year, Parashat Metzora comes around, and we read it and study it, and try to gain insight from it.  It is not easy.  It is not comfortable, but when we allow ourselves to sit with the discomfort, we often grow.

This morning, we read about what happens if a house is stricken with an eruptive plague – with tzara’at.  The Torah teaches that if mold or fungus began to streak the walls with red or green, the home owner must empty the house of all possessions and have the priest come over to see if it is, in fact, tzara’at – a sort of house-leprosy.  If it is, the residents must leave for a week, and if it’s still there after a week, the stones with the tzara’at are removed from the house and taken to a place outside the city.

Take a moment to imagine your home.

Now imagine taking all of your stuff out of your house – quickly.  There is no time to Marie Kondo it, to hold each object up to see if it sparks joy.  There is no time to neatly arrange your things or to pack them away.  Let’s remember that in Torah times, no one had a garage or a vacation home for extra storage.  So where did the stuff go?  Where did people put their things? 

Now, picture the contents of your house spilled out onto the front lawn, for all the passers-by to see and to inspect.  The community notices all of your possessions – pots, utensils, clothing, too much to carry or stow away, and the neighbors know that something or someone in that house is suspect.  And you are completely vulnerable.  The structure that had been keeping you safe, that not only had been protecting you physically, but also keeping private things private, is no longer there for you.  You are completely exposed.

You, your family, your stuff, have been turned out onto the street – where do you go?  To whom do you turn? 

About a week and a half ago, these questions and this parashah became unexpectedly alive and real when I went to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco with a group of Bay Area rabbis, including Rabbi Berkowitz, who are part of the Rod’fei Tsedek fellowship – a fellowship dedicated to pursuing social justice through a Jewish lens.  We met at Glide Church on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin, where one of the rabbis in the fellowship works.  After spending some time in Glide’s sanctuary learning about what the church does, and how it serves the community, we were asked to leave our bags and phones in the office, and to go outside for a short walk around the neighborhood – not as a group, but as individuals, trying to take note of what was happening around us.

The first thing I noticed was how vulnerable I felt without my bag – without my belongings.  Suddenly I didn’t have my license or credit card, I didn’t have a pen, or my Purell, or my phone.  Without my oversized purse to shield and comfort me, I felt exposed.  While that feeling stayed with me and has continued to linger – what does it mean to be so attached to possessions? – it didn’t take long for it to be displaced by things that broke my heart.

In just two short blocks, I saw more poverty and pain than I thought possible in such a small area.  People trying to sleep on the hard concrete, people without shoes, people defecating on the side walk, people clearly strung out on drugs, and people about to shoot up, people trying to protect whatever possessions they had, people trying to comfort their pets.  Young people and old, men, women, transgender, all races – all homeless.

And in those few moments walking on the street, I actually thought to myself, this is tzara’at – this is a plague, when people lose their homes and are forced onto the street, when people have to pack up whatever they can carry and try to keep it safe.  The eruptive plague isn’t the mold that’s growing on stones in a house; the eruptive plague – our modern-day metzora – is the very real problem of homelessness – of people not being able to afford housing, and more importantly, the blind eye that society has turned.  It is so much easier to walk past homeless people without making eye contact.  It is so much easier to keep moving, to pretend not to notice, to pretend these people do not exist.  But they do exist, and they are people.

We forget.  We forget that the people on the street all come from somewhere.  We forget that they all have stories and lives, and that perhaps we have some things in common. 

I experienced a moment of connection while I was on line for lunch at Glide’s soup kitchen.  A young man asked me if this was my first time there, and when I said yes, he showed me where the menu was posted on the wall, and told me what my choices for lunch would be.  As we entered the soup kitchen, he showed me where to get my tray and a cup for water.  Kindness happens in unlikely places.  Connection can happen there too when we remember that despite different circumstances, we are all human beings.  Kindness is a salve for tzara’at.  Action is a cure.

The traditional commentators believed that having tzara’at in one’s home was punishment for sin.  Maimonides believed it was punishment for selfish behavior.  The Kli Yakar believed it was punishment for stinginess.  There’s a note in our Humash that talks about the breakdown of values inside one’s home.  I think the real plague, however, and the real sin, is how society ignores the very real problem of homelessness.  The sin is that is it so easy overlook people who are completely vulnerable and exposed because we are uncomfortable. Or perhaps, we are too comfortable and are afraid of getting uncomfortable.  It is society’s stinginess with resources that allows the tzara’at of homelessness to persist.

This past Tuesday, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute released a report that found that the homeless population the Bay Area’s nine counties is the third highest in the country – New York City is the highest, followed by Los Angeles.  Followed by us.  In 2017, there were approximately 28,200 homeless people in the Bay Area.  The study predicts that the area will not be able to provide beds for everyone until the year 2037.

The report says:

“The absolute size of the Bay Area’s homeless population, combined with the region’s dearth of temporary shelter options and an insufficient supply of supportive housing, desensitizes the public and condemns the homeless to lives of hardship.”

The report highlighted the real cause of homelessness: housing supply and affordability.

Every county in the Bay Area has added fewer affordable housing units than needed.

The report also pointed out insufficient public resources for psychiatric care. 

This is metzora – an inescapable plague in people’s homes that leaves them homeless in an area of wealth and abundance. 

It feels particularly poignant at this time of the year to reflect on homelessness.  After all, today is  Shabbat HaGadol – the Shabbat just before Pesach.  In less than a week, we will sit at the seder table and retell the story of our ancestors packing up whatever they could carry and leaving their homes in such a rush, that their dough would bake into flat cakes on their backs because it would not have enough time to rise. 

It feels poignant to reflect on homelessness at this time because at the Seder table, we will announce “Kol dichfin yetei v’yeichul – all who are hungry, come and eat.”  We will open the door as we say this and symbolically invite people to join our meal.  But will the people who are hungry come inside?  Will they even hear our invitation?

We will open the door for Elijah too – Elijah:  the harbinger of the messianic era.  It is not enough to open the door.  We must ask ourselves:  what will we do to usher in that era?  What will we do to work toward a time of eternal peace, even while we are living in this very broken world?

It’s a big question.

It’s an overwhelming question.

It’s uncomfortable.  It would be much easier to look away from the homelessness in the Bay Area, but again – it’s the looking away, it’s the ignoring of other human beings in need that has become our metzora.

We might not be able to solve every problem, but there are steps we can take and things we can do that will make a real difference in people’s lives, and who know?  Maybe even hasten the coming of messianic era. 

●          If you are interested in helping to expand what Beth David does in terms of both Social Action and Social Justice, or if you are curious to learn about the difference between the two, please join our new Tikun Olam group for a meeting on May 14, and please feel free to be in touch with me for more information.

●          Please contact Rivka Shenhav to find out how you can volunteer at various locations around Saratoga for SafePark, a program that allows homeless people, including students at our local colleges, to park their cars safely overnight so that they can get some sleep without the threat of theft or violence.

●          Please fill a bag with Kosher for Passover food and bring it to Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, so that all who are hungry really can eat next week on Pesach.

●          And please, as you prepare your home for Passover, donate your chametz to Second Harvest Food Bank, or bring it here to Beth David and leave it in the collection bin by the front door, so that we can make sure people in need have food to eat.

On this Shabbat HaGadol, let us recognize that the real plague, the real metzora – the real tzara’at happens when we ignore the suffering around us.  It happens when we get too comfortable to see the humanity in one another.  On this Shabbat HaGadol, I pray that we find the strength to open our eyes and the courage to take action.