As a parent, moments of inspiration can come from unusual places. One might think that you need to go to a mountaintop or to the ocean for inspiration. But for me, all I need to do is sit in carpool line.
In the afternoon, when I pick Jeremy up in carpool line I found a spiritual mentor of sorts. This man is someone I don’t know well, but he’s changed the way I view life.
The person I’m referring to is Daniel, a security guard at the preschool my son attends. Every morning and afternoon, his job is to direct cars in carpool line. His job seems pretty monotonous to me – standing for long stretches of time to direct the people and cars. What’s remarkable is that he does his job with immense joy. He gives high-fives to the kids walking by. He notices everything and he’ll comment to Jeremy, “Oh, I love your Elmo shirt.” When we walked by one morning, Hannah had schmutz on her face, and he wiped it off. Once he told me that my car’s breaks were squeaking and needed to be inspected, and he was right.
Daniel welcomes each person and makes them feel appreciated through these little gestures. Even if you’re having a rough day, there’s one bright spot in your day. The experience of the synagogue as a warm and loving place begins with him. I wonder: where does his joy come from? How is he able to make such an impact on me and on countless others that he encounters every day?
An answer to this question may be found in one of the most unsightly parts of the Torah. This week’s Torah portion addresses a disease called tzara’at. This word is often mistranslated as leprosy but actually refers to a strange disease that can afflict people or even houses. In people, tzara’at turns the skin white, and in houses, tzara’at is a kind of mold. Either way, it’s no fun!
This part of the Torah is seemingly the least relevant to today – as we thankfully no longer have this disease on our bodies or in our homes. This section is perhaps the last place in the Torah you would expect to find spiritual inspiration but is home to one of my favorite teachings.
Leviticus teaches that if a person contracted the disease, he or she should go to the priest, and the text offers specific instructions to the priest on diagnosis. The verse reads:
And the priest is to look at the affliction on the skin of the flesh; if the hair in area has turned white and the look of the affliction is deeper than the skin of his flesh, then it is tzara’at, and the priest is to look at him, he is to pronounce him impure.
This text is repetitious. The priest is supposed “to look at the affliction” and then “to look at him.” Why is the action of looking stated twice?
Rabbi Y. Y. Tronk from Kutno taught that two levels of looking are required. He wrote:
It would appear that we have a hint here that when one looks at a person, one should not only see his shortcomings – where he has been afflicted – but should look at him as a whole, including his strengths. … Thus, although the priest first needs to ‘look at the affliction,’ afterwards, he must ‘look on him’ as a whole.
This teaching urges us to broaden our vision by looking twice at those we encounter.
In this passage, Rabbi Tronk practiced what he preached. He took a second look at a challenging text – peering beneath the surface of the verse to the deeper meaning hidden within it. That’s what the enterprise of Torah is all about.
Likewise, I think the source of Daniel’s joy is the way he sees both the world around him and his role in it. In a narrow definition, his job is to stand there and wave the cars and people by. However, in a broader view, his task is to care for the people whom he encounters, which is what he does. Like the priest, he really looks at those around him – noticing everything from the new shirt to the smudge on Hannah’s face – and acts as an agent of caring, no less than a rabbi or a doctor.
We often ask children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ but perhaps a more important question is ‘How do we want to be when we grow up?’ Whether one is a clergy person, a lawyer, a mail carrier, a parent, or a friend, the ultimate task is actually the same. The job is caring for God’s creatures. The goal is to open our eyes fully to ourselves and each other.
Daniel does not know that I am writing about him – (though I’ll give him a copy). We rarely realize the depth of the impact we have on one another. Each one of us has the power to brighten each other’s day. All we need to do is take a second look.
A common expression is ‘mothers have eyes behind their head.’ On some level, parenthood does give you a second pair of eyes – a new way of approaching the world. With those new eyes, inspiration can come from the most routine and seemingly mundane parts of our day. With a second look, the security guard becomes a mentor. The gross parts of Torah become our guide. And we become much more than we imagined.
On that note, I better go. Carpool line awaits.