When a Hallway is Sacred: Priests and Purity

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Jill Abramson

A few years ago, the New York Times ran an article on the subject of organ donation entitled "Rituals of Honor in Hospital Hallways." The article described a moving ritual by hospital staff to honor a deceased person who intends to be an organ donor. In this particular hospital, when a donor is carefully wheeled down the hallway to the operating room, each available staff person (nurse, housekeeper, social worker, dietician, doctor, or volunteer) pauses and stands in silence, with quiet reverence, to honor a person who has chosen to be an organ donor.

The hallway ritual stuck in my mind. I was struck by the way in which the hospital staff had created a ritual, complete with special choreography and the involvement of the entire community, to honor this poignant moment.

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner taught that rituals evolve, at least in part, to ease anxiety around inevitable life transitions. In this way, the "hallway ritual" helps us face the core human anxieties about our own mortality. Moreover, we see the medical caregivers functioning not only in a clinical way, but in a spiritual capacity as well.

Ancient priests in Jewish life functioned in both realms: they were there to identify and respond to those infected with skin disease as described in this week's Torah portion, but also provide spiritual care. Parashat Tazria further examines the intersection of illness, caregiving, and the community. While today we might take issue with the clinical practices of ancient priests as described in the Torah, including banishing those from the camp infected with skin disease (Lev 13:4), we do know that the priests held a dual role: caring for those with illness and also caring for the spiritual needs of the community. Of course, living through the outbreak of COVID-19, we are also in awe of the priests' understanding of the need for quarantine.

In those times, the priests were concerned with the concept of purity. That is, they were concerned with what was pure or impure. For example, coming into contact with a corpse would have made you impure (Lev. 21:11), and in that event, the priests were vested with outlining steps for bringing one's status back to a state of ritual purity.

Today, while we no longer have a priestly caste, or cling tightly to the concept of impurity in Reform Judaism, we have retained important elements of the dialectic between purity and impurity.

For example, in the morning liturgy, we recite the words " Elohai n'shama shenatatat bi-tahora hi," which means, "the soul that you have given me, God, is pure. In this prayer, we affirm the purity, or the goodness, of the soul. Yet we also read in the same liturgy " V'taheir libeinu l'ovdcha b'emet" which means "Purify our hearts to serve you in truth," the implication being that our hearts need further purifying -- that is -- that we can all stand to grow in deepening the goodness or purity of our hearts.

As we reflect on the work of the priests, the power of ritual, and the words of our prayers that express a longing for pure hearts, I am drawn to the words of Minnesota poet, teacher, and author Ruth Brin who writes about these very ideas in her book, Harvest: Collected Poems and Prayers. Brin includes a poem for each weekly Torah portion. In her poem for this week's parashah, she invokes the role of the ancient priests, the care they offered to those afflicted with illness, and the opportunity we have to purify our hearts in goodness and address moral illnesses of our time. She writes:

Though it was difficult, long ago, to heal
The dread and deadly spots of leprosy,
it is also difficult to heal the deadly hatreds
we carry in our hearts today;

How shall we even recognize, beneath their bland
And persuasive smiles,
Those who are diseased with corruption?

How shall we banish the evil
that seeps into our own minds?
Oh Lord our God, we whose souls are blemished
And whose minds are impure, ask of You.
By what rites can we be clean again?
By what ceremony can we be cured of all our moral illnesses?

Teach us, we implore You, as You taught Moses,
the ways of righteousness and strength.
Help us to heal ourselves and to be physicians
To those who need us
Make our souls pure, as they came from You.

The rituals we create and observe help us through the hallways of our lives. The ancient priests, today's hospital staff, and each one of us, have the capacity to face change, to move forward and with God's help, to purify our souls.