The words of our Torah portion are most frightening. They are frightening for the ways in which we identify: the experience is too familiar. They are also frightening precisely because we do not identify: the description of the scaly affections and the priests is archaic, foreign to our ears, and not to be understood.
First, the familiar: Who among us has not noticed something strange on his or her own body? Let's say that one day you are just brushing your teeth, daydreaming about work, when you glance in the mirror and see a spot, a patch, a quarter-inch square of skin that is just a shade darker than the rest. Or maybe you see a mole or a rash or a lump. You think the worst. Then you counsel yourself: "Don't be silly. It's probably been there all my life and I just never noticed it before."
Then you get scared again. You call the doctor. They take a biopsy. You wait. You pray. You share your anxiety with the rabbi, but ask that it be kept confidential because really, you are still hoping that it's nothing. You can taste the relief (tinged with a bit of embarrassment that you made such a big deal over nothing) when your doctor pronounces that miraculous word: "clean!" And you get dizzy at the prospect that a different scenario is emerging, one in which your doctor utters the horrid verdict: "unclean!"
Over the years of serving in my congregation, I have discovered that each of the parashiyot have reputations that have been given to them by our bar and bat mitzvah students. Every parashah is meaningful, I teach our thirteen-year-olds, and there is no such thing as a "better" or "worse" portion. But I must say that those b'nei mitzvah students who have Parashat Tazria feel that they are in a special club. Why is this so? They joke, that of all the Torah's portions, theirs is "the worst." Perhaps it is because of our societal discomfort with talking about the details of such personal matters. Bodily emissions and unusual discoloration of fluids do not seem, they say, to be topics appropriate for public discussion from the bimah. Perhaps it is because we continue, even in today's modern world, to be frightened of diseases that we don't understand.
In biblical days, the treatment for a variety of skin diseases was elaborate and complex. It was the priest who was called upon to assess the disease. Did the priest have a medical background or was he called upon strictly for his ritual expertise? W. Gunther Plaut, in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), says, "As portrayed in Leviticus, the Israelite priest is not a physician. His role is entirely ritualistic; he does not attempt to cure tzara-at" (p. 743). And yet Baruch Levine, editor of the JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), claims that the priest "combined medical and ritual procedures" (p. 75). Harvey Fields says, in A Torah Commentary for Our Times (New York: UAHC Press, 1991), that "the priest functions not only in his religious role but also as a kind of diagnostician" (p. 122).
These differences of opinion among biblical scholars shouldn't surprise us. Rather, they should remind us how our health is based on a closely interwoven web of medical and spiritual needs. It is not a coincidence that many of the great rabbis of our people, Moses Maimonides among them, were both rabbis and physicians. Those who were priests and those who were doctors were both, rightly, referred to as healers.
When we are ill, we want to use all our resources to aid us in healing. We want the best medical care. At the same time, the Mi Shebeirach that is recited for us in the synagogue goes a long way to bolster the spirit and help us on a path toward wellness.
The verdict can be horrifying. Whether the pronouncement is "clean!" or "unclean!" is not in our hands. And yet we are guided. Like the priests of old who had careful prescriptions for those who were ill, we are helped by our doctors, our rabbis, and our communities as we move forward in a continual dance between sickness and health.
BY THE WAY
- One may not live in a town without a physician. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:1)
- [Rachel Naomi Remen, the noted physician who has published about the import of the intersection between mind and body and between spirit and science, is herself the granddaughter of a rabbi, and her childhood dream was to be a rabbi. She well describes the interplay between body and spirit as she writes the following:] At first, I was surprised that people with the same disease had such very different stories. Later I became deeply moved by these stories, by the people and the meaning they found in their problems, by the unsuspected strengths, the depths of love and devotion, the rich and human tapestry initiated by the pathology I was studying and treating. Eventually, these stories would become far more compelling to me than the disease process. I would come to feel more personally enriched by them than by making the correct diagnosis. They would make me proud to be a human being. (Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom [New York: Riverhead Trade, 1997], p. xxiv)
- [The English words "clean" and "unclean" are incomplete translations of the far more complicated Hebrew words tahur and tamei. Rachel Adler explores the frightfulness and the relationship between the two concepts when she observes the following:] Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumahis devil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory. (Rachel Adler, "Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings," in The Jewish Woman, ed. Elizabeth Koltun [New York: Schoken Books, 1990], p. 64)
- Why do human beings so often react with hatred to that which they fear?
- Is quarantine ever an appropriate response to contagious disease?
- How might our prayers for health impact our healing?
Stacy Offner is the rabbi of Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, Minnesota.