It feels as if a trend has taken hold of the world and it is not something we should be proud of. The increasing focus on how we are different from the "other" has very serious consequences. Is it just easier to see differences than to look for the common ground that could unite us?
This week's Torah portion, M'Tzora, is named after the Hebrew word for leper. It provides criteria that are used to separate people from the community. In the case of leprosy, infectious disease provides a good reason for separation. But isolation, no matter how it is justified, defines a person as "other." The Torah goes on to describe several other naturally occurring conditions that would render a person "impure" and "other" for a certain length of time.
As a society, we excel at finding little justifications for viewing and treating people as "other." It may be the color of a person's skin, their mode of dress, a medical condition, a political affiliation, their sexual orientation or simply the fact that they don't like cats (one of my small truths).
This kind of behavior cuts us off not just from each other but from tremendous opportunities for change. Recognizing our shared humanity, shared experiences and, sometimes, shared suffering helps us break down the barriers that keep us from achieving common goals in our personal lives, our neighborhoods, our nation and our world.
How can we make a fresh start? We can commit ourselves to learning as much as we can about those who are different from us, including their values, traditions and beliefs. We can be willing to discard long-hold prejudices and misconceptions, viewing "others" as fellow human beings rather than as opponents or obstacles. And perhaps most powerfully, we can seek out direct contact with those we consider the "other."
In the Torah, lepers were separated from the community for good reason. But the priests were instructed to review their status and decide when they would be permitted to reintegrate into society. The Torah demonstrates that there are ways to transform the "other" back into part of "us." This isn't easy, and we don't always get it right. But it is something we should strive for.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford