April 24, 2020
This week’s double portion, Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33), first speaks of the effect of childbirth as a state of ritual impurity and then moves into the medical issue of tzara’at, a strange, leprosy-like malady that afflicted people. In the second part, Metzora, we read about how houses get tzara’at and walls need to be torn out or even the whole house has to be torn down!! Weird! Weird enough that even the Rabbis question it. These days, we are concerned about Black Mold which, if it’s bad enough, requires taking a house down to the foundation. But leprosy? And spiritual leprosy at that? What did the house do wrong? Or is it because of the people in it?
According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community. Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations. This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right. A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase. Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness. This week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora shows us how to deal with a certain kind of disease. We learn in great detail how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community. The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week. If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.
As my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jack Romberg, suggests: When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God. While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community. That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases. Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment – be it physical or spiritual.
The priest needs to check personally. No diagnosis is made on the basis of rumor or suspicion. In fact, the phrase v’ra-ah ha-kohen, “the priest shall look,” appears no less than thirty times in the text. The priest provides a very personal level of care. He is there, in person, with the afflicted individual. If there’s one thing Jewish tradition understands, it is how hard it is to be separated from the community. It is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the individual who must be separated for medical reasons is still afforded a great deal of support.
It has been so touching to me how our Temple Shalom community has come together to provide support as we are all in isolation. We feel the pain of the person who is quarantined uniquely as we read this portion this year, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Our community has undertaken the task of calling every single member of the congregation to assess how they are doing and what needs they may have, from having a package picked up to be mailed, to help with live-streaming services, to a kind word and a listening ear.
The text is clear, as the priest examines the person who is ill, he is specifically directed to look at him.. This may not seem noteworthy, and yet, when someone is sick they are all too often reduced to “a case of x,” and not seen as a whole person. “See him,” the priest is told, not, “see IT.” Commentators emphasize the compassion called for in addressing someone who is suffering. Make sure you are seeing them in their totality, they remind us, see him or her, not just the illness, not just “it.”
The metzora, the person who is suffering, is required to announce their impurity if they are out among the community, so that people know to give them space, to socially distance themselves, as it were. While this might seem terribly embarrassing, again, the rabbis say, no, this is so that the community will be alerted of the need to pray for the individual’s strength and healing. We pray for healing for all those who suffer from COVID-19, and, in fact, for all of us who are separated from our beloved community.
It’s hard for all of us to be separated right now. We struggle with ways to stay connected and are so grateful for our caring volunteers and for the blessed technology that brings us Zoom learning and live-streamed services. We are steeped in compassion for those who are afflicted and pray for their health and recovery. And we pray for ourselves, as well, that, when that time comes that we can be together once again, we never, ever take for granted the profound blessing of being together in community.