A journey through Tazria-M’tzora in a time of COVID-19 is revelatory. Things that never resonated before, things that seemed incomprehensible – perhaps even reprehensible – suddenly make sense.
Leviticus 13 goes into excruciating detail about the diagnosis of and response to various afflictions of the skin. These infestations, whose cause is unknown, render human beings and clothing ritual impure. The priest who examines the afflicted individual cannot identify the cause of the outbreak; he can only determine whether the symptoms necessitate isolating the individual from their community. At times, the priest cannot determine whether early symptoms indicate a contagious illness; in such a case, a follow-up visit may be required before a diagnosis can be confirmed.
If the priest pronounces the individual impure, the following steps are taken:
As for the person with a leprous affection, the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and the person shall call out, “Impure! Impure!” That person shall be impure as long as the disease and shall dwell apart in a dwelling outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46).
Who could fail to empathize with the stricken individual of our Torah portion? We live in a time when a cough, a sense that food is less savory than it was yesterday, or a slightly elevated temperature leaves us uncertain as to whether we have a mild cold, the seasonal flu, or whether we have contracted a terrifying virus. Imagine the reaction to the symptoms detailed in Tazria-M’tzora.
In a year when every person whom we encounter, no matter how healthy they appear, could be a source of contagion, imagine the reaction of those around the afflicted person described in Leviticus. Consider the restrictions imposed on the person. Dressed in clothes that indicate mourning, wearing a mask over their mouth, they walk alone, signaling their condition by appearance and speech. They are forced into isolation, kept apart from family and friends during what must be the most anxious and frightening time of their life. No visitors, no words of comfort from loved ones, no way of knowing what the next day will bring.
However, the Torah offers hope. Leviticus 14 begins: “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time of purification… the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed… he now leads the individual through a ritual of purification” (Lev. 14:2-3). This ritual is not a cure, a rite to banish disease; it is enacted only after the physical symptoms of the illness are gone. It allows a person returning to the community to experience catharsis, to symbolically cast away the pain and fear of illness. The ritual itself may strike us as bizarre – a bird is slaughtered and its blood is mixed with water and sprinkled over the person who has recovered. A second bird is set free. The individual washes their clothes and bathes but must remain outside their home for another week. Then after a second round of bathing, the individual offers sacrifices and is anointed with blood and oil.
Tazria-M’tzora confirms what we have learned in the past year: The workings of the human body are wonderous and mysterious. Despite all of our knowledge and medical expertise, we can’t always explain why some people become ill while others do not. We often take our bodies for granted when they function as expected and are then shocked and dismayed when they don’t. We feel a sense of betrayal when we experience illness. Even when we know what causes a disease, that knowledge often offers no reassurance and does not allay our fears.
The writers of the Torah and the rabbis who interpreted it in the early centuries of the Common Era possessed none of our medical knowledge. The workings of the body that have been explained by modern science were a mystery to them. The Talmud acknowledges this sacred mystery in words that have become part of our morning liturgy: “Blessed [are You]… who formed human beings wisely, creating within them openings and channels. You know that if one of them opened or closed [at the wrong time] it would be impossible to stand before You” (Berakhot 60b). In Leviticus Rabbah, commenting on the opening verse of Tazria, rabbinic discussions of pregnancy and birth reflect the sense that the formation and sustaining of the fetus in the womb is miraculous.
It is expected that if a person carries a bag of coins with the opening facing downward that the coins will fall out. But when the fetus rests in the mother’s womb and the Holy One protects it so that it will not fall out and die… (Leviticus Rabbah 14:2)
How does the child rest in the womb? It is rolled up like a writing tablet, its head between its knees, its hands at its sides, its heels against its buttocks, its mouth closed and its navel open. It eats and drinks what its mother eats and drinks, but expels no waste, lest it kill its mother. When it comes into the world, that which was closed, opens, and that which was open, closes. (Leviticus Rabbah 14:8)
In a world filled with mystery, there is awe and wonder when the body functions as expected, and there is also fear. Tazria-M’tzora, with its discussions of bodily fluids and skin ailments, reflects both the awe and the fear that the body’s function and dysfunction evoke. Its rituals, strange as they seem to us, allowed individuals to mark the highs and lows that are part of physical existence. These rituals marked their restoration not only to health but also to communal life.
This parashah, read thirteen months after we began living through a pandemic, reminds us that life is fragile and that illness may result in a sense of disruption and isolation. It also reminds us that rituals, while sometimes as mysterious as the inner workings of the human body, may offer comfort at the end of an illness. The conditions discussed in Tazria-M’tzora had physical manifestations, but they may also have taken a social and emotional toll. The rituals described in the parashah are performed on the body of people, but they are also intended to act upon their minds, to reassure them that they are once again whole.
Perhaps we too should think about how ritual could help us recover from the physical and emotional toll of the past year.