George Carlin, one of my favorite comedians, was known for his obsession with language and his uncensored, incisive take on the way language can shield us from facing reality and allow us to hide from hypocrisy in society and our own lives. When reports of the shooting at Fort Hood began to touch on the possibility that the shooter suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I thought of a classic Carlin routine where he traces how this very real effect of war on the human psyche went from the "simple, honest, direct" term "shell shock" in World War I through the softer "battle fatigue" until landing on the more distant and bloodless Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He ends by wondering if we would be more alert to the plight of those who suffer from bearing the real costs of our wars if the bald term "shell shock" had not given way to the less jarring PTSD.
Of course, there is more to it than Carlin says, and by any name, this malady is just one of the obstacles faced by those who suffer, whether in war or otherwise. Further, it is important not to see what happened at Fort Hood as a representative reflection of Post Traumatic Stress and those affected by it. Still, he captures what is at stake when we allow ourselves to bury reality under euphemism using, in his words "language that takes the life out of life" even when its ugly."
This week, the Torah reading is anything but afraid to face the ugly truth. The section, Metzora, from the book of Leviticus deals in great detail with various infestations of an eruptive condition usually translated leprosy but not related to the disease that bears that name today. In any event, the narrative is explicit in describing the effects of this eruption on the human body as well as its manifestation on clothes and houses. The result of this infestation is, in the biblical language, tumah, a ritual blemish which renders one unfit for inclusion in the community.
While there is temptation to find a meaning and a cause behind the eruption of this disease and a longstanding tradition of associating being stricken with some transgression, the text itself simply describes the manifestation, diagnosis and procedure for restoration. The procedures outlined in Leviticus are certainly archaic and the labeling of those affected is blunt and without any visible signs of softness or compassion for the plight of the other. However, at the heart of it, the description of the metzora is not about guilt and consequences but about recognizing, naming and facing the reality of affliction.
The need to strip away all the cover up and confront reality is found in the ritual itself. The person affected is shaved completely including eyebrows and facial hair. Only then can there be a process of tahara -- the renewal of ritual purity and reintegration into the community. The word tahara, like tumah, is hard to pin down in English. Interestingly, however, there is a familiar resonance in the Greek word that is found in the equivalent passage of the classic translation called the Septuagint --Katharsis. The process of naming and facing life's scars and blemishes can be cathartic, can be cleansing, allows for honest appraisal and the possibility of healing.
The image of a shaved head in the midst of the cleansing ritual also resonates in a particular way for me this week. During their annual meeting, over 70 Rabbis, men and women mostly from the Reform movement had their heads shaved to raise money for St. Baldricks fight against childhood cancer. While the over $500,000 they raised is incredibly significant, their act went far beyond. They consciously chose to make themselves bald to honor and remember Superman Sam Sommer, the eight-year-old son of two of their fellow Rabbis who died last December from acute myeloid leukemia. By stripping away literally and figuratively the layers that covered up such brutal reality, these Rabbis not only did not shy away from facing what was harsh they took it upon themselves to be part of the catharsis and, in a myriad of ways, the healing.
May we be inspired by their example, may comfort come to the bereft and healing and strength come to the wounded and afflicted.