In this week’s Torah portion as in last week’s Torah portion, we read the priestly laws related to purification. There are a number of different scenarios in which a person could become impure, kind of like having the cooties, and require purification in order to rejoin the group and or the religious rites. Over the years, I have heard and read many commentaries about the exclusion. Scholars puzzle over the exact nature of the skin diseases, and why individuals were thought to be unclean from the various situations as described in this parshah. I’ve heard people speak about the exclusion. But, what really caught my attention this year was the move toward inclusion. The religious purification rites seem to be written in detail so as to instruct how individuals could rejoin the group. I think it says something about our human nature, what we care about and what we fear, that we read the exclusion with questioning and concern. No one likes to feel isolated, outside the group or alone. We take for granted that we should include everyone when we can.
While ritual impurity isn’t a concern for most of us in modern life, last week’s and this week’s parshah set an example for inclusion: whenever someone is separated, we are looking to help them find their way back to the group.
How well do we do at including everyone in our communities? We would probably agree that anyone with a physical or mental illness, varying gender or sexual identities, anyone of any race, color or age in welcome in our schools, churches, post offices, theaters, museums or other public spaces, yet we may not notice the ways in which certain members of our society get left out, and feel themselves to be isolated. In my first year teaching Kindergarten in a public school, I had a student with Cerebral Palsy. He, his wheelchair and aide could physically be with the class and seemed to be following along what we were doing very well. It took time for me to understand that having him in the room doing what he could like the other children wasn’t full inclusion. I needed to use his learning language, a picture word system, and incorporate his language into the classroom in order for him to really be a part of the learning and the community.
Let’s do an experiment together. As we go about our lives, besides noticing when we feel left out because of something that makes us feel a little different, let’s notice all the things that we do and take for granted. Let’s try to notice all the ways that someone in our society can feel isolated or left out. For example getting anywhere away from the house is hard if you can’t drive. We never see those people, so it is easy to not think about them. With this sharpened awareness and empathy, let’s also look at how each of us can do something one way or another that honors the sentiment that we all belong, that there almost always paths for re-entry, for inclusion in our communal lives.