Friday, April 16, 2021/4 Iyar, 5781
Parashat Tazria-M’tzora Leviticus 12:1-15:33
Early in the pandemic, we reached this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-M’tzora, which discusses the proper ways to respond when people were afflicted with a contagious skin disease called Tzaraat. The Torah explains that when someone displayed symptoms, they would report them to the priest, who would examine him, pronounce him unclean, and send him into quarantine for seven days (Leviticus 13:2-4). The priest would then check in on the individual at regular intervals until, at long last, he had healed.
Today, we use doctors rather than priests to examine and heal us, but the process displayed in this portion is eerily familiar. There is a substantial difference, however. Whereas in our society, recovered individuals can go back into the community when they are no longer contagious, our Torah portion urges a much slower process. It spells out a highly symbolic ritual that allows for not only bodily but also spiritual healing.
As modern commentator Anne Pettit explains, “Impurity was never a punishment; it was simply a recognition into a different state of being.” For the past thirteen months, we have been in a different state of being. We have connected to Judaism in our homes through our screens. We have become masters of technology in ways we could never have predicted. We have spent more time with the people in our homes and have spent more time walking in nature or sitting on our patios. We have found new hobbies and passions, or we have learned what it’s like to homeschool. I hope most of all we have become more compassionate human beings, grateful for how others touch our lives.
The journey to a post-pandemic life isn’t a straightforward one. We need time to heal and to reflect, and so did those suffering from Tzaraat.
When Tzaarat was no longer contagious, the high priest, Aaron, asked the newly healed individual to quarantine a few more days. He would then offer a sacrifice, and the blood with crimson stuff, cedar, and the healing herb, hyssop. As Rashi explains, “the hyssop symbolizes the humility that the person should have,” and the cedar “is a symbolic reminder that he who holds himself as high as the cedar tree should learn to lower himself like the hyssop.” In other words, there is time to come to terms with our humility and vulnerability, which we so acutely felt at this time of illness. The individual dips a bird in this mixture before releasing it. As he lets go, he casts off his quarantine, his restrictions, and fear. He releases the weight this illness had on him for so long. He cleanses himself and takes a few more days in isolation before offering more sacrifices and sanctifying himself before God. Only then is he ready to rejoin society.
While I am not advocating for animal sacrifice, I believe there is wisdom in this ancient tradition. There is a need to create rituals that aid us on our path to healing—both individually and communally. Based on this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Catherine Mummert created a stunning modern-day ritual for entering our Sanctuary when the time is right.
I look forward to bringing it to our community. I also invite you this Shabbat to take some time to reflect. What other rituals might you need as we heal from this pandemic?
Rabbi Cassi Kail