Torah from around the world #61

by Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

There are many forces that we cannot see and cannot really understand – but we know they are there and we notice it when things go wrong. A person who says “I will only believe in what I can see” is effectively cutting himself off from all awareness of Emotions, for example – or Bacteria – or the Wind – or Tides – or Magnetism – or, now, as we are very, very conscious, of Radiation. Sometimes we can see what happens when one of these forces works on a person or a thing, but the force itself is something hard for most people to comprehend. Despite several attempts by wise people to teach me, I still do not know what Electricity really IS – I mean, not in scientific jargon but in pure physical terms. We talk of a ‘current’, of a ‘force’, or ‘resistance’, we talk of a current being ‘direct’ or ‘alternating’ and measuring it with meters – but the fact is, you cannot see it, or hear it… the way you can see Water. You can only see when it is powering a machine or a light bulb, you can only hear a buzz when it is in overhead cables, you cannot grasp IT – and live. We can feel when a magnet draws something metal to it, but we cannot see the magnetism itself – not with the naked eye.

And now, one of the most bizarre elements of the twin catastrophes that have so recently struck a part of the world – and indirectly affect us all – is that there was first a very visible wave of Water, with much force – so much force that it blasted buildings, trees, vehicles, even ships all over the region, killing thousands instantly. And then, once that wave had subsided, once the waters had withdrawn, once the cameras could take in the scenes of devastation, houses reduced to matchwood, cars on tops of buildings, ships many metres inland, entire towns wiped flat – awful but somehow Understandable according to the inexorable laws of physics, something we understand every time the bathwater slops over the side or a river overflows – then it suddenly hit us that there was another force that had been let loose, that a few concrete buildings containing unutterable but invisible power had been damaged, and that this unutterable but invisible – and deadly – power was now being released… and could eventually kill us all.

In our Sidra last week we read of physical scars and blemishes, sores and scars, and this week we read of the relief of being healed. It isn’t very amusing or edifying reading. It has no heroic narrative. It describes how the Israelites felt when they were struck by a physical illness that left visible symptoms. At that time, they did not have access to microscopes or electronic measuring instruments – they had only their eyes and their brains. Their eyes told them that something was wrong, their brains sought for the reason. What invisible force might have caused this blemish? Was it God, was it divine wrath, was it a punishment? Would it get better if one waited? Should one bring some offering to appease God?

They did not know the term ‘psychosomatic’, but we know that one of those invisible but powerful forces is inside every human being – the will to get better, the confidence, the faith. We know that rituals often help and we know that even useless placebos will often work if the patient believes strongly enough. This is a challenge to everyone who tries to think logically and scientifically – but it is true nonetheless.

They did not know the word ‘virus’ or ‘bacterium’ or ‘cell’, but they knew that people could be struck down quite suddenly, and die, and that other people who came in contact with them could sometimes develop the same symptoms.

Invisible powers are not to be ignored just because they are invisible. Radiation is a power, and Faith is a power, and Love is a power, and Hate is a power. Some of these Powers can work positively on our lives, and some negatively. The Priests, the


, were the people who, in those days, had the task of investigating problems and applying their knowledge. In their protective clothing and with frequent washing they came close to the eternal fire and the burning offerings and the ashes and other remains. The whole people depended on their doing their job properly, knowing what to do and doing it according to the text. And should others develop sores on their skin – was this a ‘normal’ sore? A boil? Or a melanoma, a skin cancer? Would wiping it with oil and herbs help? Should the sufferer be placed in isolation? Should they be cured, how should they express their gratitude and relief so as to put this phase behind them? Could even a building become dangerous, through something malignant in its very walls?

And now, we are all of us dependent in some way on those workers who, in their protective clothing and with frequent washing, come close to the burning and the damaged cores, knowing as they do so that a destructive force is already working upon them and that, if they do not succeed, this force can spread further; much, much further.

Sometimes an apparently innocuous or even tedious piece of Torah can come alive, just because we find a way to relate it to the modern day. This is, of course, what Reform Judaism is all about. I do wish, though, that we could be a little more optimistic at the moment. Nevertheless, should these heroes in Japan succeed – as we pray they will – how will we express our gratitude? To them, their families, their unborn and never-to-be-born families? What will we learn from their sacrifice? How will we express our sense of awe and trembling at these dreadful forces that we, not God, have tried to channel and control – and how will we adequately confess the extent of our failure? How will we modify our own energy-hungry lives?

Every culture has a myth about the dangers of playing with fire or stealing power from the gods. Before our eyes, on our TV screens, we see only the latest manifestation of this


, this


. Mankind still has a lot to learn. Let us tremble – and let us pray.

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