Tazria-Metzora 5780, Minyan Dorshei Derekh
I’m sorry I’m not in the service with you today. I miss sharing Shabbat services with all of you, but I’ve chosen, for now, not to use screens or electronics on Shabbat per my longtime practice. Thank you so much to Tamara for offering to deliver this d’var, which I had agreed to do a couple of months ago, before I realized I would not be able to do so in person.
Here we are in late April 2020, reading this week’s double parsha, Tazria-Metzora, where the Torah sets forth the rules for certain situations – some extremely common, some less so – when a person has to limit contact with others. The Torah calls this a state of tamei, which we can translate (inadequately) as ritual impurity. In this state a person can’t touch other people or sanctified objects or porous food containers; clothing, bedding or furniture may require washing if they come into contact with that person; the person can’t go to the Mishkan, the place for communal worship; the person must wash with water; and in the most severe version, the affected person has to live apart from the community.
It all sounds so familiar.
For all these circumstances, the Torah also sets forth procedures for returning people and objects to a regular, tahor, state. I want to focus our discussion today on what it means to have a prescribed, routine means of transitioning from a state of limited contact to a state of reintegration, and on the particular reintegration ritual for a person separated from the community due to serious disease.
The ways that a person becomes tamei include childbirth, a skin affliction we’ll call leprosy, menstruation, seminal emission, sex, and irregular male or female discharge. These are not obscure circumstances! Menstruating women, couples who’d had sex the prior night, anyone who’d given birth in the past several weeks -- the restrictions on contact were not for a tiny group of the disfavored or most vulnerable people. On some level the restrictions would fall upon almost every adult at some point, and presumably a pretty high percentage of the population on any given day.
As I mentioned earlier, the Torah sets forth a reintegration ritual for each situation. There is always a way to end the state of tamei and return to a state of tahor (ritual access, or the absence of social distancing). In fact the text is more preoccupied with the return ritual than with the state of tamei itself. For all of the conditions except leprosy, the Torah specifies an amount of time when the tamei state ends and the ritual may be performed. For many of the conditions except childbirth, the period is 7 days. Some of the rituals are private (for instance, bathing in water, washing one’s clothes), and some have a public component requiring sacrifices to be brought to the Mishkan. The separation from regular contact is thus time-limited and predictable. Being in a state of tamei is common, short, and fixable.
Reading the text this year, I was drawn to the description of treatment of people with the skin affliction we’ll call leprosy. The sick person, whose condition is diagnosed by the kohen, has to live outside the camp until the kohen declares that the person has recovered. Unlike the other conditions, this state of tamei does not have a fixed end date. The open-ended timeline, the separation from community and from family, the potentially life-threatening illness, and the reliance on a powerful community leader to lift restrictions on mobility evoke so many of the circumstances and feelings we face in the coronavirus pandemic. Some people will not heal and will not be granted permission to return, and they will die outside their family and community. For others, the kohen will declare them recovered, and they will reintegrate.
The reintegration ritual is striking. First the priest prepares a liquid of bird blood and red dye and sprinkles it on the person; the person then bathes, washes clothes, and shaves. At this point the person may reenter the camp, but must remain outside their tent for seven days. On the eighth day, the person goes to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices. (The text provides a less costly sacrifice option, birds, for people who are poor.) The kohen must sprinkle blood from the sacrifice and dab it on the person’s right ear, right thumb, and right big toe. The kohen also dabs part of the oil on the right ear, thumb, and toe, and pours the rest of the oil over the person’s head. (Lev. 14:14-18). The person is now tahor.
This ritual with dabbing sacrificial blood and oil on the ear, thumb and toe occurs only one other time in the Torah: for the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the high priests. Before that ritual, too, the priests were separated for 7 days. The ordination ritual, conducted by Moses, included dabbing blood of a sacrificed ram on Aaron’s and his sons’ right ears, thumbs and big toes. (Lev. 8:23-24). It also included sprinkling the oil used in the Mishkan on Aaron and his sons. This process sanctifies the priests. (Lev. 8:30).
Why is the ritual for reintegrating the person recovered from leprosy so similar to the ritual for ordaining the high priests?
Biblical scholar and Rabbi Tamara Eskenazi writes, “Leviticus concentrates on reconnecting the persons who have been isolated and on bringing them back to the center. The more marginalized the ill persons have been, the greater the effort to bring them back into the fold. . . . Leviticus 14 illustrates the tremendous investment in the social and religious reconnection and rehabilitation of persons formerly stigmatized and excluded by virtue of the disease. The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the ordination of the High Priest.” So the Torah is teaching us here that a drastic, stigmatizing isolation requires an elaborate reintegration.
The ancient rabbis associate the leprosy diagnosis with death, not only because the disease was serious, but also because the text states that the sick person rends their clothing, an act associated with mourning. (Lev. 13:45). Because the recovered leper had been in a state so closely associated with death, ritual is necessary to reenter community. This helps us connect the leprosy condition to the birth- and reproduction-related states of tamei. Childbirth and acts associated with potential or foregone reproduction also bring humans close to the liminal stages of life, where the boundaries between human action and Divine presence blur. When people approach those boundaries, too, a period of limited contact followed by reintegration was required.
· For states of tamei that involved fewer restrictions than leprosy, the reintegration rituals were simpler. What practices do we have in our community for concluding periods of separation? What reintegration practices might we envision for emerging from the current period of separation?
· What can we learn from the teaching that life-threatening illness, isolation and stigma require affirmative and elaborate reintegration rituals?
· The ancient rabbis and later commentaries blame the sick person for contracting leprosy as a result of sin, in particular lashon ha-ra. In that framework, the isolation from community is a punishment as well as a means to prevent contagion. Despite advances in our knowledge of medicine, the association of illness with fault or moral failure continues today. In what ways do we blame and isolate people with chronic disease [e.g. substance use disorder, severe mental illness, type 2 diabetes, obesity] that some in our society blame on moral failing? How might we as a Jewish community frame an approach to chronic disease that promotes prevention and healthy behaviors but does not fault those who are sick?
Although the reintegration ritual for leprosy was unusual, one aspect of it is more common, an act that we associate with joy, abundance and G-d’s comfort: pouring oil over the head. In the Psalm for Shabbat and in Psalm 23, the psalmists praise G-d for pouring oil over their heads. In Psalm 23, this line is “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” May we find ways to ensure that all recovering from serious illness, and all reintegrating after a period of prolonged separation, experience Divine comfort and a cup that overflows.