Sometimes, live television affords us moments that could never have been predicted in advance and yet, as you watch them happen, you know you are witnessing something that everyone is going to be talking about for years to come.
Last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony is a reminder that even today, in our balkanized and asynchronous media environment, we can still collectively experience these kinds of moments. By now, you all doubtlessly know what I’m talking about:
About two-thirds of the way through the evening, comedian Chris Rock came onstage to present the award for Best Documentary. Of course, you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember anything about the award itself. Rather, what you probably remember is Chris Rock’s joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, and what transpired after.
It’s not clear whether Rock knew that Pinkett Smith lives with alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss. I didn’t, although apparently she has been quite public about it. When the camera panned to Pinkett Smith, it was clear that she was not amused. Neither, apparently, was her husband, Will Smith, who went into the evening as the frontrunner for Best Actor. He ultimately won in that category – a recognition which many of Smith’s fans, myself included, thought was long-overdue.
But Smith’s award would not become the most consequential moment of his night. Instead, furious over the way he perceived Rock insulted his wife, Smith walked on stage, hit the comedian in the face, and then returned to his seat, shouting profanities.
It was such a shocking moment that I assumed, as I was watching it, that it must have been scripted. But it quickly became clear that it was exactly as it appeared: one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and the night’s favorite for Best Actor, physically assaulted a man on live television.
There is a lot that can be said about this whole ordeal. But I want to focus on something Smith said after the altercation that struck me as profound. In his acceptance speech, Smith mentioned that, shortly after the incident occurred, legendary actor Denzel Washington, who was seated nearby, took him aside and said to him, “‘In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the Devil comes for you.’”
Now, I don’t know for sure what Washington meant by that statement. Maybe he was saying that there are always people who seek to knock others off pedestals. One should be on guard against these kinds of enemies, especially in one’s highest moments, because they will either try to actively bring you down themselves, or else tempt you to act in such a way that precipitates your fall.
Maybe it’s because we Jews tend not to believe in the Devil as an external enemy like our Christian cousins, but I understood Washington as referring to an inner enemy, perhaps what Jewish tradition calls the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. In Jewish tradition, the yetzer ha-ra is our selfish instinct, the propensity each of us has to do what feels good in the moment, even if it is morally wrong. It is precisely in our highest moments that the yetzer ha-ra is strongest within us, because those moments might give us an inflated sense of our own importance and power, seducing us to treat others as inferior or believe we can act without consequence. It’s the mindset once infamously articulated by a different notorious celebrity: “when you’re a star they let you do it.” Or, as 19th century British politician John Dalberg-Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’m not positive that Washington was warning Smith about the tendency of power to corrupt. But regardless, it strikes me as true and meaningful wisdom for us to consider, and it is, I think, the lesson at the heart of this week’s parashah, Parashat Tazria.
I am certainly not the first to say that Parashat Tazria is one of the most confounding parts of the Torah for us moderns. Chapter 13 of the book of Leviticus infamously describes in great and sometimes gory detail a mysterious skin ailment called tzara’at. Despite how it appears in many English translations, tzara’at is almost certainly not leprosy. As contemporary biblical scholar Robert Alter puts it, “the symptoms do not correspond” with the disease we now identify as leprosy. Moreover, “there is scant evidence” that leprosy was even a disease with which our ancient ancestors would have been familiar, as it was not present in the Near East at the time the Torah was written. Alter goes on to write that it’s not even clear the Torah is describing one disease here, arguing that “some conditions” the Torah ascribes to “a single malady may actually have been a variety of diseases, not all of them intrinsically related.”
All we can really ascertain about tzara’at from the Torah is that its defining feature is a loss of pigmentation in the hair and skin, and that it renders the afflicted person tamei, or ritually impure. In other words, the person who experiences a sudden loss of pigmentation in their skin or hair, in Hebrew a metzor’a, is barred from participating in the sacrificial cult until they are healed and undergo purification rites.
According to Alter, the Torah’s language about tzara’at conveys the sense that its appearance was “ghastly,” meaning reminiscent of a ghost, or corpse. My predecessor at Temple Beth-El, the great 20th century biblical scholar Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, argued that the pervading theme in the Book of Leviticus is that “all deathlike phenomena” should be separated from the living. Since “the wasting of the flesh associated with tsara’at is associated with death,” a metzor’a must be separated from the community of the living until they are healed.
This explanation helps, but it still leaves us with a more fundamental question, namely why Leviticus is so preoccupied in the first place with separating living things (and that which is reminiscent of them) from dead things (and that which is reminiscent of them), and also what does any of this have to do with our relationship with God?
For this question, I find the analysis of the great 20th century anthropologist Mary Douglas helpful. In her landmark book Leviticus as Literature, Douglas argues that the whole system of purity and impurity as laid out by Leviticus boils down to this: There is an immeasurable difference between God — who is supremely awesome, powerful, and majestic — and we mere mortals. Sure, we human beings may have been created in the divine image, but we are not ourselves divine. Unlike God, we are fundamentally ephemeral and hopelessly flawed. And yet, since the Torah envisions the Tabernacle as God’s home and its altar as God’s table, worship in the Tabernacle, which involved not only symbolically offering food to God but also eating a portion of the food that was offered, represented nothing less than an invitation break bread with the Divine. Douglas explains that given who we are compared to what God is, “the height and the depth of this honor,” of mere mortals being permitted to sit, and share a feast, with God at God’s table, of we human beings being invited to be in an intimate relationship with the Majesty of Space and Time, “is inexpressible.”
The system of purity and impurity outlined in Leviticus is therefore a way of ensuring that we remain mindful of our place in the scheme of things. Because we have an invitation to be in relationship with the Divine, we might come to think that we are Divine ourselves, that there is no distinction between what it means to be God and what it means to be mortal. Even as the Torah entices us with the possibility of intimacy with the Divine, it warns us: In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the yetzer ha-ra comes for you. It is precisely when we start to believe too much in our own greatness that our tendency to see others as inferior, or believe we can act without consequence, is strongest. One need look no further than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine for evidence that people who fancy themselves gods tend to do a whole lot of killing; historically, they also themselves often meet their own violent ends. The more important we feel we are, the more morally dangerous we become, to ourselves and others.
“Pride goes before destruction,” teaches the book of Proverbs (16:18). “Arrogance, before calamity.” The Torah recognizes this insight about human nature and responds by training us to remember, “there but for the grace of God go I,” prohibiting us from worshiping in the Tabernacle in precisely those moments when we are confronted by our mortality — for example, when we come into contact with a dead body, when we eat fowl that feeds on carrion, or, in the case of our Torah portion, when we are afflicted with a disease that makes us look like a corpse, or that reminds us that the unique trappings of human existence, our clothing and our homes, are, like we who inhabit them, made of imperfect matter destined to decay and disappear. The Torah bars us from intimacy with the Divine in precisely moments such as these in order to remind us that our place in God’s presence, indeed in God’s world, is an undeserved gift; a privilege, not a right. Mindful of this fact, we might walk in the world not with a sense of self-centered and self-serving entitlement, but rather with the kindness, generosity, and beneficence that can only be rooted in deep humility.
It’s striking that we always chant Parashat Tazria in the weeks leading up to Passover. Indeed, today is both Shabbat ha-hodesh and Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, a special Shabbat marking the beginning of the month in which we celebrate Pesah, the month of Nissan. The Passover story centers on a tyrant who fancied himself a god — and his nation of collaborators, enablers, and bystanders — oppressing a minority population it deemed inferior, even abominable. After the Children of Israel are liberated, they are given a system of laws that serve to guide them to create a counter-Egypt, a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness, inclusion and peace.
Building a Tabernacle, a place where all people — not just a small ruling class — are invited into intimate relationships with God, is a major part of that counter-Egypt. So too are the laws of purity and impurity which govern Tabernacle worship, including our parashah’s strange rules about ghastly skin diseases that render one impure, because they provide a perpetual and deeply necessary reminder that our place at God’s table is an undeserved gift. By remaining mindful of who and what we truly are, even and especially in our highest moments, we can become humble and kind, gracious and generous, the kind of body politic needed to build a society, and ultimately a world, that is a true counter-Egypt.
May we embrace that message of liberation speedily and in our days.