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Suspending Disbelief

04/11/2024 11:48:40 AM

Apr11

Caution: The following contains nerdy references to Star Trek, but it's all in support of Torah!

I was raised on Star Trek Voyager. It’s a story of a starship crew that gets lost on the other side of the galaxy and are making their long voyage home. In true Science Fiction fashion, there is plenty of technological gibberish, aliens, and shenanigans, but also a commentary on the human experience and condition. In one of my favorite episodes (“The Void”), the Starship Voyager gets stuck in some sort of phenomenon that has literally nothing in it at all, except for the resources of any other spaceship and crew that were unfortunate enough to get trapped within. With very limited resources, the crew must not only ration their supplies, but must also fend off desperate raiders whose only means of survival is pirating supplies from unsuspecting ships. The episode is an interesting exploration of human desperation, survival and trust – despite it being a complete work of fiction. In order to appreciate the commentary of the episode, the viewer must suspend their disbelief and occupy the world the creators of the episode crafted. The crew of Voyager will never exist, but yet we still see our reflection in their actions. 

It is through this lens that I read Parshat Tazria. In this week’s portion, we learn about a particular disease called Tzara’at that can not only affect a person’s skin, but also their house and their clothing. Not every rash is Tzara’at, nor does every discoloration make a person impure. Rather, a priest must examine, monitor, and reexamine the affliction to determine what exactly is the nature of rash. Now the rational and scientific mind begins to ponder the type of skin conditions that can similarly transfer onto house and clothing. What kind of bacteria or fungus could do this? However, in his commentary of this parsha, Maimonides asks us to not look at it scientifically, but to suspend our disbelief and to recognize this condition as something more supernatural. Maimonides and other commentators explain that it is a person’s transgressions that bring upon this disease of Tzara’at, and this supernatural phenomenon can transfer onto a person’s house and clothing as result of not being devoted to God. Many commentators specifically link the skin malady with the sin of gossip and spreading rumors. In such a way, a person’s outward appearance matches their actions and there is a physical representation that reveals their transgression to the sinner and to others. 

Was there really a skin malady back in Biblical times that works the way that Maimonides explains? We might not ever know. However, in the same way I appreciate one of my favorite science-fiction shows, I can suspend my disbelief to explore what Maimonides might really be suggesting. There are some types of sins that don’t have obvious physical repercussions. Spreading rumors and gossip is an example of such a transgression. There is no paper trail for our words and the damage that materializes is mostly social in nature. Yet the negativity of slander and gossip still has real ramifications for a person and their surroundings. There might not be physical discoloration on the walls or our clothing, yet the reputation of the busy-body gossiper, as well as the legacy of hurtful words surely exists and is brought into our homes and our social circles. What would our walls and clothing look like if we were to be able to see the stain of our misdeeds and sins? Besides slander and gossip, what are our other shortcomings and errors that bring negativity into our lives? If we suspend our disbelief and not read this portion literally, perhaps we can think about the aspects of our own human experience that generate spiritual maladies in our lives, and more importantly, take subsequent steps to purify such stains. 

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784