Tazria — 5771 — “The Epidemic of Network”

03/04/2011 at 12:29 Leave a comment

“The Epidemic of Network”

Parashat Tazria

2 April 2011

Neil F. Blumofe


We are in a section of the Torah that has often been made into metaphor by our commentators.  Just previously in last week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we have studied the concept of tumah – or, in contracting contamination from animals.  This week, in Tazria, we learn about tumah – contamination among humans.  Suffice it to say, that this is not one of the most favorite Torah portions among our students.  Many times it is difficult to communicate inspiring and transformative Torah from a concept that seems so, well, so Biblical.


However, I see a real connection that links these old, sacred words to our most advanced technologies and accomplishments.  I have been thinking a lot about our neighbors in Japan in these last few weeks – and about the potential and unseen dangers posed to our world by the release of radiation from the nuclear reactors that were damaged in the tsunami and in the ensuing earthquake.  Rather than speaking about the general efficacy and the benefits and shortcomings of nuclear power, in connecting our Torah portion to our world, we can see that there are consequences and outcomes resulting from the things we do – many times anticipated and desired, and some just as a cost or a side effect of doing what we do.


For example, our Torah portion begins a discussion of tumah of contamination that results in childbirth.  In thinking this through for a moment, we are struck by the frank connections between such a sublime miracle – the creation of life – and the parallel beginning of tumah – or impurity that is joined with this.  What is our Torah saying by teaching that imbedded within the inauguration of birth is the fact that the mother contracts tumah?  I think that the Torah makes a remarkable statement about our human condition.  Within all of the joys, efforts and hopes of the birthing process, there too is difficulty, pain and uncertainty – so too, in our lives.  All that we strive for, telling ourselves that this is what we are working for – whether it is a  longed for child, a comfortable living, or some other recognition, there are downsides too to our striving and our instincts to create and to be noticed and to matter.


According to the International Atomic Energy Agency in a report released in 1996, there are International Basic Safety Standards for Protection Against Ionizing Radiation.  These standards are to give us a baseline of measurement in screening the effects of radiation from various sources.  So too, the Torah is not presenting us with a cautionary tale – rather, it is opening us up to honesty in presenting our lives in a forthright and ingenuous way.  There is prescience in learning our Torah portion and in thinking through the outcomes of all of the things that we do.


When we speak of tumah or tsara’at here, we are not speaking of some ancient disease – or something that doesn’t happen much anymore.  Rather, we are discussing the consequences of living life.  The disaster in Japan reinforces how interconnected we are – and how in this day and age, we live in such a global association.  We cannot be isolated from the world so much, anymore – rather, our lives are affected – in the foods that we eat, the clothes that we wear, in the smart phones that we carry, in the text messages, online shopping, and data that flies all around us – in the lanes of trading and shipping – by what happens in a remote place, or across the sea.


Like it or not, we live with an epidemic of networking.  And to depart for a moment from the traditional, rabbinic understanding of the meaning of tsara’at – which is gossip, or lashon hara, I contend that tsara’at is truly what happens to us in the choices that we make, or the illnesses that we contract or the weird things that happen to our bodies, every so often.  This includes allergies – which could come from cedar or oak or pollen, or fires in Mexico, or who knows what and from what place.  Many times on this level, we are not personally responsible for what happens to us – however, we are effected by where we live, what our neighbors are doing and the choices that we make as a populous group of people – including, the amount of rain that falls, and what’s in the rain, how high the temperature gets, or how fast our icy polar caps turns into a torrent of running water – tumah then is not metaphor, it is the real result of our advancements and our aspirations.


These consequences of our networked cloud, or our shared interactions effect us personally and too, our homes.  We may be ravaged by time and as we age, we spend an increasing amount of time trying to hide our blemishes or obscure the outcome of our aging.  We may refute that the world changes and is altered because of what we do in it – however, there is no denying that as we live our bodies droop and sag, our hearts are not what they once were and our souls are certainly tried by the experience of our living.


Tumah and tsara’at are not specific things – rather they are unavoidable and part of our lives.  They are the unexpected detours – they are our current medical challenges.  They are the bolt out of the blue that stagger us and remind us of the things and the people that are truly most important in our lives.  They are the complexities and secret resentments that we have, even in our greatest joys and in our longest standing relationships.  And above all, they are a reminder that we are not our own boss – and that we serve no human master – rather, that all of our imperfect yet well intentioned actions magnify the idea of the holy for as long as we are privileged to live.


Because of the lives that we lead and the world that we are both blessed and challenged to live in, we live with a bit of constant radiation, and a bit of toxicity – and we move ahead, doing the best that we can.  May we not be passive as we live – may we not just be acted upon, or consumed — rather, may we turn our lives into instruments, into Geiger counters, that detect holiness and too, more importantly, may we become sacred reactors that transmit and churn out a clean, safe and dependable holiness, in our service to God.


Shabbat Shalom.



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