For two years I lived in two worlds. One world full of skyscrapers, the other world empty houses. One made of concrete, the other of grass and sand. One resplendent, the other on the verge. One world where I was a student and the other world I was a pastor.
For two years I lived in two worlds. It was 2006 and I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I studied Talmud and Jewish law. I studied the Torah with rabbis and academics I walked Central Park and hung out at the Boat Basin. I went to Broadway shows on student rush tickets.
It was also just a few months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi. She destroyed some 100,000 square miles and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. She drowned a thousand people and killed a thousand more. It was one of the largest and deadliest storms in US history.
For two years I lived in two worlds. I helped with the recovery effort after the storm working with a small-but-mighty Jewish community of Congregation Beth Israel. I would wake at 3:00 AM on Friday in my Manhattan apartment and make my way to the airport where I took a pre-dawn flight to Atlanta and a tiny connector plane to Gulfport, Mississippi. I would fly home late Sunday afternoon, be in New York by midnight and home by 1:00 AM, and got up to go to school the next day at 6:00 to go to my Jewish Law class. For two years I lived in these two worlds.
The first time I landed there was no roof in the airport. There were no street signs anywhere. There were whole blocks with no houses, only concrete stairs rising from the foundation into the open air. Despite all the devastation, my congregation in Biloxi was wondrous. Folks who had been through all the mess of Katrina came together to pray and study. Some drove over an hour to bring their kids. They are remarkable examples of Jewish heroes.
I hosted a Torah study on Saturday mornings and when we came to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, we shared a moment that took our breath away. It changed my view of the Torah forever. It helped me to bridge these two worlds.
As we sat around the table we read aloud, “This is the Torah of the sick person on the day of cleansing, when the matter was brought before the priest…. When I give an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you own, the owner shall come to the priest and say, ‘something like a plague has erupted in my house.’” (Lev. 14:2, Lev. 14:34-5)
Folks around the table took a breath. They stopped talking. Some wept.
“Is this what happened to us?” “Did God send Katrina to infest our houses with mold?” “Is this how God shows up in my life?”
Now I took a breath.
This was a special moment, a sacred moment.
I understood for the first time why the Torah still matters. Not as some academic text, but as a living, breathing book. It came alive. It is the Book of Life.
The Bible is not about showing off the perfect family who lives in the perfect house and on the perfect block – that’s Disneyland Torah. In Disneyland Torah there is no sickness. Everyone is happy and well fed, and there is a parade and fireworks every night.
It’s the Disneyland Torah that sets us up for failure and turns us off from God and from religion. We can’t relate to a perfect world. It might be nice to visit, but it’s just not about us. It’s fantasyland.
Every one of us has pain somewhere inside. If we only have the Disneyland Torah, then it doesn’t share in the pain. So when you had to go through whatever you’ve gone through and open the Bible and find a perfect family, it carries no meaning and you feel alone.
You say, “No one’s been thrown away like I have. No one’s dealt with infertility like I have. No one’s sick like I have. No one’s lost everything like I have.” These are real things I’ve heard wonderful people say, with nowhere to turn.
But we don’t have a Disneyland Torah. We have the real Torah. A Torah that captures the real moments of life. Our Torah deals with all of life in its most intense moments. It’s real life, not the playground of life. It shows us what living with each other and with God can be like. It’s not perfect. It’s painful to read sometimes. But it reaches out to us because it is us. The Torah helps us to name our sickness, our guilt, our pain, our shame. Leviticus more than any other book.
Nowhere does it say, “This is the Torah of Disneyland.” It says, “This is the Torah of the sick person.” (Lev.14:2) This is the Torah for the sick and the broken, and the meek to turn to. Torah has the power to transform lives because it captures the stories of real lives.
I looked at my friend’s faces, taut with stress and exhaustion sitting around the table. We held hands.I took another breath.
I told them what I felt and what that moment cracked opened for me. The Torah tells us that this moment you find yourself in is a real moment of human suffering. It begins with “on the day of cleansing” a day fraught with trauma and revelation that we need to raise up our pain. It is on this day when we bring to to the surface what we feel inside that we are ready to begin again. When we take the risk of telling others what we feel inside, we can start over. It is on this day of cleansing that we come together to announce a place is ready for a restart. To repair. To heal.
If you think you are alone. You are not. If you think what you are going through is yours alone to bear, it is not. We are all in this covenant together. You. Me. Everyone.
God shows up when we read the Holy Book. The plague is not God, but it does give us the opening to find God through each other. That is the secret of Leviticus. When life comes at us hard, we grow stronger by making the invisible visible, and healing through each other.
Each of you are in this Holy Book because this Holy Book is in you. God calls out from within and gives us life. God shows up between us, amongst us – in us. God shows up in your life as a Caregiver, a Friend, a Risk Taker and a Volunteer. God is not in the storm, but in those who help clean up from it. Hand-in-hand. This is the Torah of the sick, the ashamed, the guilty. This is the Torah that is real. This is the Book of Life.