Poor Shmuel: A One-Act D’var Torah on Leviticus

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A married gay couple in their forties, neither of them born in to Jewish families, decide to convert to Judaism. A few years after their respective trips to the mikvah, the ritual bath that marks the end of the conversion journey, they decide to become b’nei mitzvah together.

They end up choosing a date in April that corresponds to a double portion from the Torah, arguably the two ickiest parts of the Book of Leviticus. Verse after verse of skin diseases and bodily fluids. They work really hard — maybe a little too hard — to find the positive message in the text, and this is what comes out…

The Characters

 Shmuel
The Main Character and Narrator, appearing as an adult

Young Shmuel
Shmuel’s younger self, about sixteen

Hannah
Young Shmuel’s best friend and protector, about the same age as Shmuel

Shmuel’s father, a priest of the First Temple

Shmuel’s mother

Boy 1 and Boy 2
Young Shmuel’s tormentors, about his age

Introduction

Tazria’ and M’tzorah — two portions of the Book of Leviticus that read, at least on the surface of things, like a technical manual for managing different kinds of ritual purity. These are among the oldest layers of Torah, deeply alien to our modern sensibilities. The rules on blood and bodily fluids and skin diseases offer us an ancient consciousness that sees life and death, creation and decay, virtue and sin as so dangerously intermingled that only constant attention can keep them apart. In a very peculiar language of images and analogies, it seems to be telling us  –

Be careful. Watch what you do. Your every action has cosmic significance.

The text is deeply concerned with childbirth and menstruation but also with (and there’s just no more delicate way to put this) male emissions. Rabbi Susan taught us that one of the ways to understand this is to see each of those things as representing, in the most concrete way you could imagine, human potential. So maybe in its own way, the text is broadcasting to us at full volume –

Don’t be casual around the unfolding of God’s creation. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’ve got people figured out, that you know everything they are and will be, because you don’t. You can’t.

All of this came together in our minds — during a few weeks when the headlines were filled with the awful story of another dead gay teenager — with one of the text’s main technical concerns, which is how to deal with an outbreak of ‘leprosy,’ or tzara’at in Hebrew. We actually have no idea what condition this was; all we really know is that it couldn’t have been leprosy as we know it, because it’s also described as infecting clothing and houses.

As it happens, the Hebrew word tzara’at has counterparts in Arabic and Aramaic that mean something like ‘putting down’ or ‘oppressing.’ That works pretty well, because later in the Bible, Miriam is struck with tzara’at when she (and Aaron) start saying bad things about Moses in public. So maybe this strange disease is a warning to us –

Don’t put people down, because you have no idea where or how the damage you do will show up.

But we didn’t want to just stand here this morning and tell you these things; we wanted a way to bring you into the text and the many difficult propositions it put in front of us –chief among them the idea that isolating people from a community could ever our best first move.  So with the help of the CRC Players, we’re going to create for you something a little like ancient Jerusalem. I’ll let our main character introduce himself to you.

Opening Scene

[Shmuel appears stage right or stage left, and narrates as events from the past unfold center-stage]

SHMUEL: Hi, my name is Shmuel, and I have a story for you that’s related to this week’s Torah portion. I think you’ll want to hear it, because you see, my father was one of the priests who worked on the first draft. Hi Dad!

[Father, in distance, waves back]

SHMUEL: All my brothers became priests, all my sisters married priests. But I never wanted the priestly life. I just liked to stay home and help mom around the house.

SHMUEL: My best friend Hannah was the same way. She and I were little terrors at school, and it didn’t help that my dad was the teacher.

CUTAWAY:

[Scene of Father chanting from a scroll as Young Shmuel and Hannah sit behind him, squirming and giggling. Shmuel’s mother is nearby, giving them dirty looks.]

FATHER: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, if any man has a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is unclean …

[Young Shmuel and Hannah giggle harder. Father turns and gives Young Shmuel and Hannah a dirty look. They quiet down. Father turns back to the scroll]

FATHER: And this shall be his uncleanness due to his discharge: if his flesh runs with his discharge, or if his flesh is plugged up by his discharge …

[Young Shmuel and Hannah lose it, start cracking up]

MOTHER: [Annoyed] Shmuel!

SHMUEL: My dad tried for a long time to get me to study the Teaching, which is what the word ‘Torah’ really means.

CUTAWAY:

[Father and Young Shmuel sitting across from each other, studying the scroll. Mother is in the background, sewing.]

FATHER: So anybody who sits on an object that’s been sat on by somebody with a discharge has to wash their clothes and bathe and they’re impure until the evening.

YOUNG SHMUEL: This is gross. Why does it even matter?

FATHER: It’s the Teaching.

YOUNG SHMUEL: Well it’s dumb. How does this help us create a better world? That is what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?

FATHER: This has to be a part of it.

YOUNG SHMUEL: Why?

FATHER: I don’t know why. Maybe you’ll be the one who figures it out.

YOUNG SHMUEL: [Sighs deeply, rolls his eyes]

MOTHER: [Annoyed] Shmuel!

SHMUEL: I always felt like I was the only one in Jerusalem who just didn’t get it. At least when Hannah wasn’t there. We were inseparable, Hannah and I. I think our families always thought we’d get married, but we were, you know, just friends.

CUTAWAY: [Young Shmuel and Hannah sitting together. Hannah laughing uncontrollably as Shmuel talks]

YOUNG SHMUEL: Did you see that girl Miriam at services the other day? I wanna know where she got the money for that dress! One day she’s wearing burlap sacks and the next she looks like the Queen of Egypt. Who knows, maybe she’s found some work as — you know … [They crack up. Young Shmuel starts rubbing his forehead]

SHMUEL: But the truth is, Hannah was my protector, too. I got bullied every day because I was, you know, different.

CUTAWAY:

[Two boys are shoving Young Shmuel around, hurling insults at him.]

BOY 1: Sissy!

BOY 2:  I saw you doing it with another boy. I’m going to tell everyone, starting with
your father!

YOUNG SHMUEL: That wasn’t a boy, that was Hannah dressed up as a boy.

BOY 1: So what, Hannah’s your girlfriend?

YOUNG SHMUEL: Yeah! We do it all the time. She loves it. [Young Shmuel rubs forehead]

BOY 2: You’re lying.

[Hannah walks up, her hands on her hips, forcefully shouts]

HANNAH: Hey! Knock it off!

[The boys shove Young Shmuel one last time and walk away in a huff]

HANNAH: Shmuel, why did you say those things? Why did you tell lies about me?

YOUNG SHMUEL: Don’t you get it? I gotta fit in somehow.  [Walks off, rubbing forehead]

SHMUEL: And then one day, something happened.

CUTAWAY:

[Young Shmuel and Hannah are standing alone together. Young Shmuel has a big white blotch on his forehead. He’s rubbing his forehead near the spot.]

HANNAH: Shmuel, what’s that on your forehead?

YOUNG SHMUEL: What’s what? [He touches it]. Oh. [Takes out a mirror and looks at himself, grimaces.]

HANNAH: Does it hurt?

YOUNG SHMUEL: No, it’s fine, it’s just — I don’t know. I’ll be fine.

HANNAH: We should tell your dad.

YOUNG SHMUEL: Are you crazy? We’ll never hear the end of it. Here, just give me your hat. It’s never looked good on you anyway.

HANNAH: No!

[They start struggling over the hat. Shmuel’s father walks up, and they stop. Young Shmuel keeps his back to his father]

FATHER: Shmuel, people in the neighborhood have been talking. They said they saw you … with someone. Is this true? Because if it is, then we need to talk. Shmuel, look at me. I SAID LOOK AT ME.

[Young Shmuel turns to look at his father]

FATHER: Shmuel, what’s that on your forehead?

YOUNG SHMUEL: What’s what?

FATHER: Come here.

YOUNG SHMUEL: [Walks up to his father.]

FATHER: Get your things. You’re leaving. You might be impure. We can’t have you here until we know for certain.

SHMUEL: I couldn’t believe it. I was outside the city, away from my mom and dad, away from Hannah, all on my own for the first time. I kept a diary during the whole experience. Here, I’ll read a few excerpts for you:

Day 1. This is stupid. [Turns the page]

Day 2. I’m bored. I still don’t understand why I’m here. [Turns the page]

Day 3. I miss Mom. I miss Hannah. I even miss my dad.

Day 4. I can’t stand this. I didn’t do anything wrong! This thing on my skin just happened.

Day 5. I’m lonely.

Day 6. I feel like crying all the time.

Day 7. Dad came to see me. If I’d paid attention in school, I guess I would have known he’d come see me on the seventh day. He wouldn’t even talk to me. He just looked at the thing on my head, turned around, and left.

Day 8. I can’t stand having no one to talk to. They’re never going to let me go back home. And maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t fit in there. I’m never going to fit in there. They all hate me.

Day 9. Mom came to visit. And this is what happened.

CUTAWAY:

[Young Shmuel is sitting inside a pup tent, with the flap closed. His mother walks up.]

MOTHER: [Quietly] Shmuel! Shmuel! [Looks around warily]

YOUNG SHMUEL: Mom? [He opens the flap] Mom! I’m so happy to see you!

MOTHER: SHHH! Keep it quiet! If your father finds out I’m here, I’ll never hear the end of it.

YOUNG SHMUEL: Mom, this is stupid. I want to come home.

MOTHER: Is that thing still on your forehead?

YOUNG SHMUEL: Yes.

MOTHER: Then you can’t come home. Oh, this is all my fault. The shame on our family, I can’t bear it. [Cries] Here. I brought you something to eat… [Tosses a bag of food in front of the tent, then pauses, looking at her hands]. Shmuel …

YOUNG SHMUEL: Yes, Mom?

MOTHER: I know you’re … different from other boys, but do you have to make fun of the priests, the Teaching? Your father?

YOUNG SHMUEL: [Silent]

Day 10. Hannah came to visit! And this is what happened.

CUTAWAY:

[Young Shmuel is still inside the tent, the flap closed. Hannah walks up]

HANNAH: [Quietly] Shmuel! Shmuel! [Looks around warily]

YOUNG SHMUEL: Hannah? [Opens the flap] Hannah! It’s about time you got here.

HANNAH: SHHH! Keep it down. If your father finds out I’m here, I’ll never hear the end of it.

YOUNG SHMUEL: Hannah, I miss you so much! You have to get me out of here.

HANNAH: I miss you, too, Shmuel, it’s just…

YOUNG SHMUEL: What?

HANNAH: Having you gone, it’s helped me understand a few things.

YOUNG SHMUEL: [Defensively] Like what?

HANNAH: Listen, I know you and I don’t fit in, but do you really think lying and making fun of people is the way to deal with it?

YOUNG SHMUEL: What do you mean? Nobody cares about us anyway, so what’s the point? Besides, it’s fun.

HANNAH: I know it feels that way, Shmuel, but what if we’re wrong?

SHMUEL: [Closes the journal] Look, I’ll level with you. Sometimes the Teaching drives me crazy. So many strange rules, so hard to understand. But it’s wiser than we know, in ways we don’t always see at first. If it hadn’t been for the Teaching, I would never have gotten to be alone — alone with all the hurt I carried inside me, alone with the hurt I caused others. And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

CUTAWAY: [Mother is mopping a floor. Father walks up]

FATHER: What are you doing?

MOTHER: What does it look like I’m doing? I’m cleaning.

FATHER: Didn’t you just do this part?

MOTHER: Shmuel usually helps me, but with him gone, I can’t seem to get it clean. [Keeps mopping while father watches uncertainly]. I miss him.

FATHER: I miss him, too, but the Teaching is the Teaching.

MOTHER: But what if we’re the ones who brought this on? What if we’re not loving him the way we’re supposed to?

SHMUEL: My father came again on Day 14, and this is what happened.

CUTAWAY:

[Young Shmuel is in the tent, the flap closed.]

FATHER: Shmuel? It’s me. Come out so I can look at you.

[Silence]

FATHER: [Concerned] Shmuel! Come out here, I need to inspect that thing on your forehead.

[More silence. Father opens the tent and finds Young Shmuel, one arm covered in blood]

FATHER: SHMUEL! What have you done?!

YOUNG SHMUEL: I … I was going to …I didn’t want to go on… But then I got to thinking-

FATHER: [Holding Young Shmuel close] Shmuel, my poor boy!

YOUNG SHMUEL: I put a bandage on it. I stopped the bleeding.

FATHER: I love you. You’re my flesh and blood.

YOUNG SHMUEL: I’ve been so cruel to everyone. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to fit in.

FATHER: Oh Shmuel. [Puts a cloth on Shmuel’s wound] Poor Shmuel. I’m sorry. We’re all sorry.

[They hug, after which Father inspects Young Shmuel’s forehead]. Well, your lesion isn’t getting any bigger, so I have news for you, son. You’re pure. We just have to wash your clothes, go to the mikvah and then you can come home.

[Mother and Hannah enter the stage.]

MOTHER: Shmuel, come home. We miss you. Everything else we can work on. [Glares at father] And we’re ALL going to the mikvah; we all have things we need to wash away.

HANNAH: [Holding out the hat from earlier] I brought you the hat.

YOUNG SHMUEL: [Smiles] Keep it, Hannah. It looks good on you. [They hug]

SHMUEL: You notice I still had that thing on my forehead, but it went away eventually. How? Well, maybe I’ll tell you about it the next time we see each other.

[From out of view, Shmuel retrieves a priest’s garment, puts it on]

SHMUEL: Shabbat shalom, everyone [Exits]

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3 Responses to Poor Shmuel: A One-Act D’var Torah on Leviticus

  1. Susan Haynie says:

    I **loved** the play! What an amazing feat to turn the unpleasantness of Leviticus into something lighthearted and relevant. I think that Shmuel simply had a teenager’s pimple on his forehead!

  2. rachel bar says:

    I’m impressed with how hard you work to find meaning in everything. I know that i’m more like young Shmuel…

  3. Erika Davis says:

    Sorry I missed this in person, but so glad I got to read it here!

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