It’s a unique experience to be considering the meaning of contagion and separation that is so prominent in our Torah reading of Tazria-Metzora during a global pandemic, when we feel afraid, isolated, and distant. The Torah reading and our new reality feel both terribly destabilizing and strangely clarifying.
The illness that is the focus of this parasha is called tzara’at – in its biblical context, it is most likely a disease of the skin. The afflicted person is removed from the camp and then re-integrated by bringing sacrifices. The ritual is a “purifying” – or strengthening – force.
After the destruction of the Temple towards the end of the first century CE, the early rabbis reinterpreted laws of ritual purity in light of behavior and morality: in the Talmud we read that one becomes afflicted with tzara’at because of seven things: slander, bloodshed, false oath, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy.
It is possible our ancient rabbis believed that one in fact came down with a physical affliction because of acts of immorality. More likely they believed in tzara’at as an internal condition, a spiritual suffering that one experiences after acting in a way that harms others. No longer a mysterious physical illness, it was understood as an affliction that infects a community through a violation of trust.
Where the biblical text and rabbinic tradition are aligned is the insight that it takes separation for healing and repair of fractures in the community to begin. In Torah, separation is required to preserve a religious system based on ritual purity. For our rabbis, healing took place through mitzvot, prayer and teshuvah, all requiring some form of personal reflective work that a person would do both inside – and outside – a community.
What feels enduring and clarifying from both the ancient biblical and rabbinic traditions is that healing is not only an individual, but also a communal, concern. In this unique moment of our lives, the insight that we are in this together – our illness, healing, mourning, grief, fear, and sadness and in our joy, hope and loving kindness. Togetherness, as always, is our source of strength.
Rabbi Dan Berman, Temple Reyim