This week’s Parasha, Naso, deals with a difficult concept, that of someone with a physical deformity through no fault of their own being exiled from the camp so as not to defile it where God dwells. God instructs Moses to “send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp in which I dwell among you” (Num. 5:3). The midrash (an early Biblical commentary) expands on this verse:
“At the time that Israel left Egypt, many of them were maimed. Why? Because they were handling clay and bricks and carrying them up to the top of the building and one who builds by carrying up to the top layer will have a stone fall on him or sever a hand or a beam or clay will get into his eye and he will be blinded. And when these maimed people came into the wilderness of Sinai, God said, ‘what kind of honour would it be for the Torah if I were to give it to such a maimed generation? And if I wait until others arise, I will delay the giving of the Torah!’ So what did God do? God told the ministering angels to go down to Israel and heal them. . . . God said to Moshe, ‘before you built the Mishkan I put up with these matters and there were people with abnormal discharges and tza’arat [the skin disease erroneously translated as leprosy] mixed among you; now that you have made the Mishkan and I will be dwelling among you, separate them out from among yourselves and send them from the camp, all the afflicted in the skin and all those with abnormal discharges and all who are defiled by corpses.’ For what purpose? ‘So that they shall not defile their camp in which I dwell among you’ (Num. 5:3).”
At some point before the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, all these deformities were healed. Yet if that is so, why then do we have this command to exile those that exhibit these symptoms? According to the midrash, “but at the time of the Golden Calf, their maimed states returned and they began to have abnormal discharges and skin diseases….” The midrash is teaching then that those who are suffering from any of these maladies are doing so because they have sinned. I find this reading to be very problematic. Are we not all the creation of God, created in God’s image with the divine spark and thus, no matter what physical form we take, all holy and blessed by our creator?
I think the main thrust to learn from this passage is not the physical deformity or exile from the camp, but the temporary nature of the exile. At some point, they should all be welcomed back into the camp. Today, in our communities, there are those who suffer from any number of physical or other abnormalities (blindness, deafness, learning difficulties, poor nutrition, poverty, etc…). Just as God has made it a priority to heal them to be able to dwell in the camp, we too must strive to make sure they are welcomed and embraced in our midst. We must strive to maximise the potential of each and every one of the members of our community. Each one of us, regardless of what abilities we have, is a sacred vessel for God’s presence in this world, refined through our long relationship with God as God’s people. Standing before God in a wheelchair, or with the help of a sign language interpreter, or with an assistance animal, is still exactly that – standing before God. It is our presence that matters, not our posture. As I said last week, we should not simply be counting everyone, but making sure everyone counts.
I would also like to take this opportunity to invite you to share in two special occasions at shul this coming Shabbat. The first, is we are officially welcoming in our two new Trustees, Niki Freedman and Susan Hamilton as well as our new Treasurer Nick Flitterman and our new Co-Chair Moira Hart. At the same time we give thanks for the years of service to Simone Freedman, Alan Green and Paul Hoffbrand, as they stand down from their positions of Treasurer, Co-Chair, and Immediate Past-Co-Chair respectively.
Additionally, there will be a delegation from the St Albans Abbey accompanied by my good friend, The Reverend Canon Richard Watson, Sub-Dean of Abbey as they come to experience a Shabbat Service. Please join me as we give thanks to those who have served our community, those who have stepped forward to serve, all our volunteers, and our good friends from our community of St Albans.