Shabbat Tazria/Metzora: “The One Who is Ill Shall Be Separated from the Camp”

…and other surprisingly relevant aspects of ancient Jewish text in the days of COVID-19

In years past it has been tempting to dismiss this doubled parasha in VaYikra (Leviticus) as superstition at worst and outmoded at best. Because of the focus on skin disease, we laugh at “the dermatologists’ parsha” and wait for more uplifting examples of holiness and ethics in the chapters to come.

It’s a funny thing about ancient wisdom, though, how one day we are brought up against the fact that our human reality is, existentially, no different.

With only a few thousand years of human life between “the one with a strange and unknown infection showing on the skin” in the ancient Israelite camp and those of us with a strange and unknown infection of our own to fear, the parallels are striking:

  1. One is immediately quarantined, for a period of up to fourteen days. During the time of isolation one is followed by healthcare professionals
  2. One does not diagnose oneself
  3. One must not make light of the disease nor risk others’ health by not informing them
  4. The disease may be spread on surfaces
  5. The isolation lasts as long as there is a chance of contagion

The worst of it all, then and now, is the uncertainty. One may be seriously ill, or not, from the contagion; one may be isolated for a short period, or longer. 

Imagine the state of the one separated, for her good and ours, from the camp of the rest of us: the feelings of fear for one’s own future, compounded by the sense of guilt, wondering who else he may have infected. The boredom as the days go by; the second-guessing whether this is all really necessary. And the fear of death.

All this fear and uncertainty is magnified when we are alone with our thoughts; unlike a bad dream, we awake to the same lack of stability, the same worry that cannot be assuaged right now. It may be, tomorrow, but we cannot know today.

This is a terrifying time; but it is not grief, contrary to what you are being told by some opinion articles on line. Grief is existential loss; losing one’s high school graduation ceremony or one’s girls’ night out is difficult and disappointing. In the hierarchy of things, it ranks far below losing one’s job. And none of that compares to losing loved ones. 

We haven’t been taught this kind of hierarchy; many of us haven’t experienced this up close. We don’t have the vocabulary for our current experience close at hand. But our Jewish people does know this situation, and is familiar with it.

What we are experiencing is existential uncertainty.

This existential uncertainty is a terribly difficult condition for us all – especially for those who have not experienced anything like it before. Those who have known the way that poverty and prejudice can crush one’s plans have some wisdom to share, but those who have been accustomed to a comfortable sense of being able to enjoy planning a happy future are bereft.

The self is not meant to live in isolation. We are herd animals and we know who we are in relation to others with whom we live, and within groups where we feel safe. Of course, the safety and security was always an illusion, but it’s easy enough on a normal day to go shopping, or take a hike, or visit a friend to keep the fear below consciousness.

But now we are forced to face it. We have no way of knowing when this will be over, what the world will look like, or even if we will live to see it. In the meantime we Jews (and those who love us) know a tremendous blessing: our people has been here before. We know how one suffers existential fear and celebrates the holiness of life at the same time, without denying the truth of either reality. 

You may be feeling isolated. You may be feeling terrified. But you never need feel alone. You have a community, and opportunities to be in touch that will give you not only grounding, but help you develop the understanding, and perhaps even the wisdom, that only those who know the existential struggle, and its beauty, can know.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: Lift Every Voice

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?  (Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar)
This week we have a Torah double-header. Our parashat hashavua (Torah text for this week) is two: both Tazria and Metzora. Both refer to conditions that can affect the surface of skin or clothes, or even the walls of your house. Some of the conditions turn out not to be serious, and some clearly are; what all have in common is that in the beginning they are mysterious. We’re not sure where the condition comes from or how it will turn out.
it’s curious, and certainly objectionable, that these conditions are considered to signify some moral lesson or failing. We reject the idea that someone who recovers from a skin ailment must bring an atonement gift to G*d, as we can see clearly indicated in Lev 14.19 “the priest shall make expiation for the one being cleansed of affliction.”
Our ancestors the Rabbis also objected to the idea that someone suffering from affliction needed to make atonement. The Talmud does something rather ingenious with this situation in their interpretation of the word for the one suffering from a skin affliction, metzora. The scholar Resh Lakish taught that we should understand this word as a variation on the phrase motzi shem ra’, “one who speaks evil [of another].” (BT Arakhin 15b)
In other words, the real affliction we have to watch out for, and the real contagion we should fear, is that of gossip and other forms of speaking ill of others. Indeed, in any Jewish community that acts upon its ethics, that is an act that requires atonement.
Our tradition holds that we must take great care with the words we speak, as they are powerful and can cause others great distress. From this we also can learn that we should take care to listen carefully to the sincere words offered by anyone and everyone with whom we interact. This idea is at the heart of the I-Thou teaching of the philosopher Martin Buber: to be truly present, in sincerity, in the presence of another person is to listen to their words, and to ensure that they know they are heard. Behind this teaching is a more ancient one – each one of us may be, at any moment, speaking an Eternal Word that needs to be heard by the one listening. Each one of us, we are taught, is a messenger of Eternal Truth to each other, and so we must find a way to pay attention, to quiet down the mind and its endless lists, and listen carefully, lest we miss it.
Think of the people in your life trying to get your attention, trying to share something important and not always knowing the best time or way to get the word to you. Sometimes, no matter how many emails or phone calls or tugs on the sleeve you get, you just can’t be present for the word that is trying to get your attention. Other times, the letter goes to the wrong address, or the writing is hard to understand, or the message is too alien to accept, and we recoil from it, and the messenger.
All around us, human beings lift up their voices: trying to explain, asking for help, expressing loneliness or happiness or pain. May we remember to give the gift we need to receive. May we not turn away from the word that another offers us, that we might be heard as well.