Parshat Tazria-Metzora

Torah Reading for Week of April 19-25, 2020
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
When I volunteered to write the commentary for this combined Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora, I selected it because I knew that it’s an unpopular portion.  Young people preparing for their B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies are dismayed if they discover that their Torah portion deals with such ‘yucky’ issues as bodily discharges, impurities, plague and disease.  How is a 12-13 year old supposed to find a spiritually uplifting and relevant message in these passages about skin disease, menstruation and seminal emissions?  There was no way to predict that these issues about purification, contamination and quarantine would be TOTALLY relevant today, in the midst of the global pandemic of Covid-19.  But relevant they are….
Covid-19 is not Tzara’at, but the two share the mysteries of origin, transmission, and symptoms.  Isolation is advised, for both.  In the Torah, quarantine lasts for a week, until an examination reveals that the affliction is gone.  Today, isolation lasts for a longer (and sometimes undefined) period of time, but the idea of separation from the larger community is identical.  In both cases, thorough cleaning is to take place, with the expectation is that the disease will pass, and, most importantly, that the community will wait, expecting that those affected will return, in good health, and be accepted back into the community.
In the Torah, acceptance back into the community is marked with sacred ritual. In a special procedure involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop, the kohen performs a ritual which marks the change in the status of the person: from tamei (ritually impure) to tahor (ritually pure).
Today, no such ritual yet exists.  When someone is pronounced “recovered” from Covid-19, there is no formal mechanism to celebrate that recovery or to welcome them back into the larger community, with celebration and relief.  This is an opportunity: while there is no longer a priesthood to decide on issues of ritual purity, there are spiritual leaders who could lead ceremonies of ‘re-entry’.  Perhaps we could invent rituals marking the first hand-shakes and hugs.  Maybe we need to have a neighborhood parade, first with masks and afterward, singing together, mask-less.  We could create great strings of thank-you cards to hang up in the halls of the hospitals.  We could make macrame hangings of red thread and cedar wood.  Groups of friends could encircle the recovered person and sing songs of thankfulness and deliverance.  We could all learn about ‘benching gomel’, the prayer for recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous situation.
We are not there yet.  This virus is powerful, insidious and sneaky.  We respond with caring.  We clean, we isolate, quarantine, distance ourselves physically from others.  We flatten the curve, we Zoom…and we pray.  When his sister Miriam is stricken with tzara’at, Moses prays a short but effective one-line healing prayer: אל נא רפא נא לה, el na, refa na la.  We pray this same prayer today, relevant to many kinds of illness.  During this time of physical separation, there are many things we cannot (or should not) do, but we can dream and we can plan.  How can this time of vulnerability be useful for our spiritual growth?  Did those sent out of the camp for a period of time due to Tzara’at return somehow different? More Miriam, knowing that the rest of the community was waiting, and praying, before moving on must have been a comfort.  Today, our communities are waiting, praying and waiting.  May we all find comfort in that, and may we be blessed with healing, hope, patience and life.