Shira Buchsbaum is a senior from NFTY Garden Empire Region. The following is a D’var Torah given this past weekend at NFTY-GER Spring Kallah.
This portion has weighed heavily on me. At first glance, we are faced with themes of ostracizing and isolation, embarrassment and shame. This text details long exiles from a beloved community. It is depressing and disappointing, especially because the Torah is intended to be a reservoir of hope and encouragement at all times. Where is the light?
I am not a person who asks for help often or willingly. My most formative years, high school, were in an environment that valued individuality and strength before community. But is community synonymous with weakness? For years I have struggled with the idea that asking for advice or counseling was a sign of incapability on my part. In no way did I ever want to admit to myself or others that I could not do it all. What is terribly ironic about this portion is that I did not understand the significance of it until I reached out to others and asked for help, a total parallel to what the text instructs. The afflicted must go to the Kohenim, the priests, time and time again in hopes of cleansing their bodies, minds, and souls. To admit to myself that I could not do this alone was no easy feat, but it only serves as a reminder that asking for help is in no way a sign of weakness. It takes courage and strength to admit you need guidance instead of remaining staunch and stubborn in your limiting conviction.
How appropriate it is, then, that as I stand before you one final time, to deliver my final d’var to this community, that I can finally recognize that strength is measured in will and nothing more. In this portion, the Rabbis of old enumerated the countless trips afflicted men and women had to take to the Kohenim to be evaluated and deemed purified of their sins. After all, besides the menstruation and totally natural cleansing process for women post childbirth, this portion discusses how men and women afflicted with a supernatural disease contracted by way of gossip had to rectify their wrongs. It is a terribly long, painful process: both physically and emotionally. These individuals have to endure the exile from their own community as well as the humiliation of having to admit their wrongs. We have all been there: hesitant to recognize that we’ve messed up. Think about a time you had to stand in front of someone you loved and apologize. The pit in your stomach seems debilitatingly heavy, doesn’t it?
Then again, when we look at the logistics of this ritual, the Torah tells us that the afflicted are considered pure not once they are completely healed, but during their healing process. Does this not seem counterintuitive? How could someone still infected by this angry virus be considered healthy and healed?
Because strength is measured in will. Because once we wrong someone, we cannot make ourselves completely whole again, but the effort to heal them and change ourselves merits recognition. It takes a great deal of courage to be able to stand before someone, both physically and emotionally naked, and allow them to help you. Vulnerability is terrifying.
Which is why standing here and sharing with you my open thoughts is daunting. I am not a Rabbi. I do not know all the answers. I cannot tell you right from wrong every time. I am here to guide you and lead you as best as I can, and nothing more. And if that is my role, why is it that I’ve found it so difficult to allow others to reciprocate that guidance and support?
In these last few weeks, I have had to come to terms with the fact that for me, NFTY is coming to a close. This year, I’ve dwelt on the ideas of identity, responsibility and accountability, and perseverance. These are all hopeful, uplifting ideas. Endings, on the other hand, are not. And that is why I’ve found this portion so difficult to deal with.
Above all else, the takeaway from this text is that the Jewish community remains open to all. Regardless of our background or what may have befallen us prior to this moment, the community is poised to re-welcome anyone and everyone back into its arms. We remain a stronghold, responsible for caring for an individual wholeheartedly, including those who have weakened themselves or others with malicious gossip, with anger and hatred. Throughout high school and during this last year especially, I’ve learned that negativity is a cancer. It metastasizes on upset and anger and feeds on bitterness. It spreads in the worst of ways: quickly, boundlessly, voraciously. It is contained by little and contaminates much.
NFTY is not a conducive community to negativity. NFTY prides itself upon being a safe space that accepts individuals regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, or background. We are an organization that seeks to provide Jewish teens with the comfort and care they require and deserve. Without fail, this is a goal and a requirement of the community that is consistently achieved. This is such a powerful quality that we can harness for good in the world.
So after receiving advice from Rabbi Josh, Pam, Casey, Marlee, my parents, and my English teacher Mrs. Bergen, all of whom recognized the ideals of community within this text, why am I so wary of writing about it?
Because I know I will not find one like this again and writing about the end is hard.
NFTY is so unique in that it is an open space for us to question and learn without fear of judgement. It provides us with a brief reprieve from the rest of the world, a place where questioning is too often silenced, resilience is too often crushed, and strength is measured in the weight you can carry, not whether you even tried to lift it at all.
In NFTY, we continuously build a community stocked with people who are not only willing to help when asked, but do so without question, all in good faith. Likewise, we teach and experience that asking questions and challenging others to wrestle with new ideas that we too have struggled with is a good thing. It is an intelligent thing. If we took everything at face value, I would be standing here discussing the legitimate benefits of these antiquated quarantine processes in modern life. Instead, we’ve observed the benefits of leaving the community for a time of healing only to come back again stronger, smarter, and ready to start anew. Beneath the exterior of this portion and our own selves, we witness so much more than what is enumerated again and again. As I stand here now, who would have ever guessed that at one point in my life, I wholeheartedly rejected my Judaism?
I am so thankful for having spent these last four years amongst a community who willingly opened their arms to me despite not having any clue to who I was, who supported me in exploring all I wanted to learn about Judaism, and who guided me in forming the relationship I have with my religion today. Had I remained staunch in my beliefs that asking for help was a sign of weakness, where would I be today? Likely questioning the purpose of religion instead of seeking out its value in my life. Likely resentful of the world I was placed into by fate. Likely indifferent to the causes our people stand for.
We stand for a lot. We have taken on great responsibility as a community: not only do we care for ourselves, we champion the care and protection of a vast variety of others. Why do we do this? It is hard, it is exhausting, it is wearing on ourselves and our souls. What’s the point?
And here again we find ourselves looking at this portion. What’s the point of all of this? Is there any value in it at all?
We must remember that the Torah was not written by the Rabbis of old to answer our questions. It was written to encourage more. So when we find ourselves questioning the relevance of these passages or these prayers to our lives, we have to remember that we are doing just as they intended. We are being not just good Jews, but strong Jews. Jews who are willing to challenge themselves and challenge others to reach a greater understanding of this world and human interaction and goodness. Jews like this build strong Jewish communities. That’s something every one of us needs, regardless of what we believe about strength and weakness.
I sat on my couch this Monday night and cried into my cat’s fur because I realized that come September, I will be leaving her, and my parents, and the comfort of my home for the first time with no real knowledge of when I will return. Once I spend my academic year at college and my summers at camp, my life will be uprooted from the home I know and love.
Though it is not synonymous with the exile from the community the individuals in this portion face, I find great parallels between the isolation illustrated in this portion and my own ensuing leave from this home. How could anyone want to go? The emptiness I feel inside regarding this fact is heavy. I do not know if I can lift it.
Then these thoughts turn to NFTY and the understanding that come September, I will have left you, and my friends, and the comfort of this home for the last time with the concrete knowledge that I cannot return. At least, not as I am today.
The last part of this portion that we need to acknowledge is the change we go through during our isolation from our community. We all experience this. Between NFTY events, we grow and learn and return home with new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives regarding life. Our time here both elevates the positive in our lives and helps heal the negative that we all endure.
So in approaching my inevitable hiatus from this community, I hope that I can grow and learn and heal in some way that allows me to return a better person, a purer person, and one more deserving to call this place home.
And if I can do that, I think I can finally lift this weight from my shoulders.