CAMBODIA

Cambodia took my heart in ways I can barely understand let alone properly articulate. And I will probably write much more about this entire life changing trip. But I wanted to write this before the rawness of these particular feelings begins to fade away.

Our tuk tuk rattled away from the New Hope Cambodia NGO free school with the children’s voices still ringing with I’ll Be Seeing You in my head. I could still feel the love in their hugs and hands as we said until we meet again. They have so little but have so much gratitude for the little we could do for them.

And I cried at the killing fields and at the Khmer/Kamai museum that gave the history of the genocide that was inflicted on the people by the Khmer Rouge. A country of eight million reduced by two million and a million more in the aftermath. A city, Phnom Penh, of over a million reduced to forty thousand in three days. And at the displays showing the twenty five or so million tons of U.S. Ordinance dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

Cambodia leads the world (and there are fifty nine other affected countries) in land mines and in the number of amputees. They are clearing them but it is slow and many people, including many children are still very much at risk. There are a huge number of minefields and additional unexploded ordinance littering the country.

Cambodia is an ancient country that is only twenty years old. It is reinventing itself in every way. There are virtually no natural resources and they are dependent on volunteers and NGO’s for practically everything. Nothing is wasted, everything can be used. If you walk and drink a water or a soda, hand the can to a mother sitting by the street, it is money for her. She won’t ask for it but will take it with thanks.

We had the privilege of seeing not only the beauty of places like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and ton le sap, but also the lives of the real people, their real lives. I never heard a single person complain. Children in dirty hand me down clothes gave me their precious candy to share. Everywhere people were gracious and friendly.

My words cannot describe the beauty of a people determined to rebuild a place they clearly love. Every project or destination has a greater purpose – to educate the children and sustain the community beyond the scope of the project or attraction. In a country whose recent history is soaked in a river of blood and death they say only: that is the past, we only look for solutions for the future.

As our plane rose from Siem Riep airport, I again inexplicably had tears in my eyes. On the outside it is in many ways not a beautiful place but it’s spirit is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Until we meet again.

Oops ! Last week’s Torah portion – Tazria

Leviticus still. This is my fourth d’var Torah on this parsha of Tazria and it is such a strange and difficult, really almost unpleasant, parsha.  It continues a discussion of ritual impurity, childbirth and the ritual of the mikvah, circumcision, etc.  Wait, we have not gotten to the icky part yet.  This is the parsha that most people associate with leprosy.  But Tzarat, or the affliction in question, is not necessarily that; it is a mysterious affliction that can affect the skin, the garments or even the s home. 

I have always found this dichotomy fascinating, the idea of the progression from outer to inner or conversely inner to outer.  From the inanimate to the animate or the reverse.  From the very impersonal (although your home is personal in some way) to the extremely personal or, again, the reverse.  Do we reach inward for G-d or do we reach outward or out-toward G-d.  If we are made in the image of the divine is that an outer, or physical likeness?  Or is it a spiritual likeness? As I do not believe in G-d as a humanoid figure, for me it is obviously an internal or spiritual/emotional likeness.  We strive for divinity in our behavior, in our everyday dealings; isn’t that what the mitzvah drive us to?  A striving for perfection and holiness, however unattainable it might be?

This too, presents a dichotomy of inner and outer.  There is the outer, or physical appearance of a person, and there is the inner, the spirit and character of a person.  The tzarat, or mysterious affliction, requires the afflicted to dwell alone outside the camp, tent or city until no longer afflicted.  This mandate of isolation brings me to two different ideas.  those with actual leprosy, continued to be quarantined or isolated in parts of the world considered civilized. 

The last compulsory isolation in the United States was enforced in 1960 and it was not until 1975 that the section Code of Federal Regulations dealing with medical care for person’s with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) eliminated the word “detention” from its text.  There was no debate in the United States regarding the appropriateness of compulsory isolation but, rather, “involuntary admission” was administratively abandoned until Congress addressed the closure of public health hospitals between 1981 and 1986 and the elimination of “hazard pay” for those who worked in leprosaria or hospitals for those with Hansen’s Disease.  The law finally passed in 1985 spared the one national center for the treatment of the disease and required that person’s with it be treated without charge.  There is much more to the history but you get the idea, compulsory isolation and involuntary admission was in part a result of the fear of infection.  But reasonably effective drugs for the arresting of the disease, although it is not technically curable, have existed since the 1940’s and yet this isolation and discrimination continued.  Why?  I believe it is because those with the disease were too hard to look at, they were sometimes disfigured in pretty horrible ways.  The history of more than three quarters of a century, just in this country, was primarily based on judging people on how they look.

Didn’t your mother tell you not to “judge a book by it’s cover”?  I think perhaps it all started with this parsha, with Leviticus and the tzarat.  Just as, perhaps, we should look for G-d within ourselves, for the spark of the divine within, the striving for perfection, we should look at the character of a person, at their spirit rather than at their physical appearance.  It is hard to look past physical imperfections or the difficulties imposed by poverty to see the person within, but that is what we are required to do.  If the divine image, or the spark of the divine in us is inner, then that is where we must look.  I have often told people who asked how I could represent murderers in my past life that nobody is the one worst thing they have ever done.  I wish not to be judged by any singular act but by the whole of who I am and what I have accomplished, tempered perhaps by what I am less proud of.  We are all a composite, the inner being much more important than the outer.

I would be remiss here if I did not note that on this Shabbat, which is the shabbat to fall on or before the first of Nissan we are commanded to read also Hachodesh, the portion of exodus that speaks of G-d’s words to Moses in Egypt, two weeks before the  exodus.  The portion commands us to bring the Passover offering and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs, abstaining from leavening for seven days.  Just as our mother’s taught us to judge a person’s inner beauty, so G-d commands us to teach our children of the exodus, of our journey from slavery to freedom.  The Torah is full of this idea of passing down or passing on, the stories and practices to our children as they were passed on to us.  Think of the V’ahavta, one of the most seminal prayers in our liturgy – teach them to your children, bind them as a sign.  The concept of l’dor vador, from generation to generation is crucial to us as a people, it is a cornerstone of our culture, our faith, our very survival.

But I digress. The second theme I found in this idea of isolation in Tazria is again of the inner and outer. As in the example of Hansen’s disease, we have historically isolated those whose outer appearance is distasteful to us for various reasons.  Those whose inner ppearance is distasteful are another matter altogether.  It is possible for the miserable of spirit to camouflage their ugliness sometimes, to learn to act in acceptable ways socially while acting out in uglier ways perhaps in business, or in their intimate relationships.  But what I think is ultimately true is that those who are miserable in spirit are almost always emotionally isolated, they have created their own isolation from which it is very difficult to emerge.  In this case the outer is perhaps more palatable than the inner.  And in the end,  those who are miserable of spirit do dwell alone, outside the tent.

 The two ideas come together when we think of how we feel, or make others feel, when we them by how they look, or their lifestyles, or their beliefs rather than looking at them to see how they actually “live”.  What matters is how they treat people, how honest they are, how gracious and how charitable.  When we judge them wrongly, we make ourselves miserable and therefore isolated.   

On this Shabbat, as we enter Nissan and prepare for our physical spring cleaning and the re-telling of our story of freedom, let us look within to find what is best in ourselves and others.  Let us look within to find the spark of the divine in each of us and clean our spiritual houses of judgment, gossip and ugliness and come to the table without tzarat in our homes and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom