The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.
On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.
The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.
Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?
This week’s Torah parashah, Tazria-Metzoria, prompts the very same questions. We read about what happens when a person is afflicted with tzara’at – a skin condition commonly translated at leprosy, but actually something more mysterious: a scaly affliction that seems to have been a symptom of inner spiritual distress. Our rabbis list seven transgressions that could cause tzara’at: murder, deceit, incest, arrogance, theft, envy, and lashon hara – evil speech, which includes gossip, slander, and defamation (BT Arakhin 16a). The implication for the rabbis is poetically just: when we commit these external transgressions, they impact not only the world and those around us, but our inner, spiritual makeup. This is then manifest as a skin affliction – a sign, perhaps that our inner and outer world are out of alignment.
When one is inflicted with tzara’at, the Torah teaches that they must dwell alone, outside of the Israelite camp, until they are healed. And once healed, a Priest leaves the camp and performs an elaborate ritual, allowing the survivor to reenter the camp, both physically and spiritual purified.
What happens to the metzora – the one afflicted – while they are outside of the camp, away from home? This was surely a powerful time of transition. The Sfat Emet, a nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, believes that tzaraat is not a punishment from God for our sins, but an opportunity for spiritual cleansing and renewal:
“The process may be unsightly, but it is ultimately healthy. It is a release of toxins from within, a cleansing of the soul by converting spiritual ailments into physical symptoms. And while the process is uncomfortable, after the week of isolation, after [diseased] skin flakes off, what remains is a renewed self, purified of sin.”
The spiritual and physical affliction are healed together, but only after a week of solitary reflection and personal rejuvenation.
I don’t want to mischaracterize the Torah – this time outside the camp was no spa weekend or meditation retreat. The metzora was likely ostracized, isolated, and viewed with prejudice. But the Torah seems to be tapping into our larger question: Why is dwelling outside of the camp so transformative? Tzara’at is not contagious – there was no need for the metzora to be physically isolated. I think the Torah is fully aware of the larger spiritual questions in play: There is something about being away from home that affords the opportunity for renewal and perspective. When the metzora returned to the camp with new personal and spiritual insight, how would their return transform others? How does coming from somewhere else impact those who welcome us in?
I can’t adequately convey for you the beauty through which the play Come from Away explores these questions, but perhaps I can capture some of the power through sharing one brief scene…
It turns out that one of the stranded passengers in Gander, Newfoundland was a rabbi. What is a rabbi to do in a town not known for having anything resembling a Jewish population? The rabbi shares his story of being stranded away from home: “There’s a man here in in town, he’s lived here nearly his entire life. He heard that there was a rabbi diverted here, and he came to find me and tell me his story.”
The Newfoundlander reveals his story to the rabbi: “I was born in Poland, I think, and my parents… they were Jews. They sent me here before the war started. I still remember some of the prayers they taught me. As a boy, I was told I should never tell anyone I was Jewish, even my wife. But after what happened on Tuesday… so many stories gone, just like that. I needed to tell someone.”
In that singular moment, after keeping his Jewish hidden for more than six decades, the Newfoundlander speaks the truth, no doubt transforming himself, and the rabbi, forever. The rabbi spent five days in physical exile, while the Newfoundlander had been living in spiritual life for over 60 years. Not able to return any moment in his life up until now, it had to happen “outside of the camp” – in a liminal space, with someone from away.
And as a result, how has that rabbi changed? What happened when he returned home, trying to shed the affliction of the terror that delayed his return? Could he – like the metzora – come back into the camp with a new sense spiritual identity?
Our Torah tells a story of people afflicted with a repulsive disease; one that results in exile, isolation, and judgment in the eyes of the public. It is a difficult story to hear, especially when held up against the Torah’s persistent focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our midst.
I think what this parashah offers us is the opportunity to confront that vulnerability head on, and search for pathways back to healing. Each of us, in one way or another, has felt a sense of distance from the protection offered by home – however we define it. Moments where we feel different from the person we were yesterday. The Torah this week prompts us: when our actions isolate us from others, what do we need to do to return to a place of support? And how can we, like the ancient Priests, leave our places of safety and comfort, to bring others in.
This is all the more pressing in a world where isolation and exile are not self-imposed, when boundaries and borders make the paths to safe spaces more treacherous.
Parashat Tazria-Metzora is ostensibly about skin disease and purification; but we wind up getting a story about spiritual growth and healing. Come from Away is ostensibly a musical about people stranded far from home, filled with anxiety about their future; but we wind up with a story about the joy of building a new community and discovering new passions. Both stories ultimately ask us two of the most pressing questions of our time: how do we open up ourselves to the experience that comes from being a stranger, and what do we need to do in turn to help the strangers in our midst?
If anything, we have a built-in system to answer these questions: the Jewish experience is one that knows what it is like to come from away.