The double-portion of Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1 – 15:33) presents a series of ritual purity instructions for Israelite priests, starting with procedures for women who have recently given birth, and shifting to the rules priests must follow to identify, quarantine, inspect, and ultimately, readmit to the community people with an ancient skin disease called tzara’at. In my first years working with b’nai mitzvah students, I repeatedly witnessed the disappointment of kids upon learning that Tazria-Metzora was their parashah. I would try to reassure them that, with help, they really would be able to find something relevant to their lives within these verses. The cultural distance, confusion, and even revulsion that many experience when encountering these parts of Leviticus are tough to overcome. And yet, with some cultural translation and an open mind, Leviticus can teach us a lot.
Our parashah offers us a good example in Leviticus 14, which describes the process by which priests would examine people to determine if they had tzara’at. If yes, then the afflicted person was placed outside the community in quarantine. Priests would then repeatedly visit to check on whether their skin was healing. When a priest verified a complete healing, he would then perform a purification ritual for the person involving two birds and a bowl of water – one of those bloody, non-rational Levitical rituals that often make us squirm. But if we can put our scientific Western mindset aside for a moment, we can explore the potential spiritual lessons for us in this part of Leviticus.
Like the ancient Israelites, we also struggle with diseases that frighten us and defy our understanding. We also rely on people with very specialized training to make decisions about how a disease is progressing, or whether or not healing has taken place. And in those fortunate cases when someone does fully recover from a scary illness, many of us also seek out some way of ritually and spiritually reintegrating into our families and communities.
One lesson we might draw from Leviticus 14 is that, when someone recovers from a serious illness, it is important for them to seek out a spiritual mentor or companion to help facilitate their reentry into the wholeness of life with others. And for many of us, ritually marking the transition from being seriously ill to being well again can provide insight, new perspective on what has happened, and a greater measure of serenity.
If we are willing to go a bit further imaginatively, we could take Leviticus 14 as a text that asks us: in our society now, when do we choose to quarantine individuals from the community until it’s officially decided it’s okay for them to come back? We rarely do this for contagious diseases anymore. In the U.S., the collective behavior pattern we engage in that most resembles Leviticus 14 is the way we deal with incarcerating people. An official body – the court – uses strict procedures that involve public rituals – a trial and sentencing – to place a person who represents a danger to the community – the convict – in quarantine – a prison – until the authorities deem that that person should be allowed to return to the community.
I realize that being convicted of a crime is different than being diagnosed with a disease. But in order to discover some of the insights of Leviticus, it can help to experiment with what might initially seem to be forced comparisons. Let’s explore the thought experiment further. I’ll add into the mix the fact that, in the ancient Jewish mind, the people who got tzara’at were being punished for sinning. (They had to atone with a sin offering when they returned to the community.)
So, Leviticus 14 instructs the Israelites to deal with people who’ve sinned in a particular way, and who pose a danger to others, by confining them outside of society until it’s safe for them to return. Likewise, American society deals with certain people who have also sinned and pose a danger by confining them outside society. But here’s the difference. The Torah requires priests to routinely visit with and assess the afflicted person, hoping to identify when they can rejoin the community. When a priest determines that a person has healed, he accompanies them through all the required steps that lead to a full reinstatement to society. In my society, unfortunately, we tend to view the people we incarcerate with spiritual indifference. We don’t assign officials to work with each and every one of them repeatedly, in the hope that they will become ready to return to the community. Rather than build clear pathways to guide the re-entry of incarcerated people into society, in America we tend to place ongoing social and economic obstacles between people who re-enter and the rest of society. In some states, we even strip them of their right to vote.
If you happen to think this comparison is too forced to be valid, I sympathize. You may be right. But even so, the thought experiment helps us see something important that is going on in Leviticus 14. If you strip away the foreignness of the ancient Israelite rituals, what remains is a text that views even people who are thought to pose a risk to society as too valuable to abandon. The Torah doesn’t say “and then the Hebrews left behind in the wilderness the people with tzara’at that wouldn’t heal.” Rather, it says that people with a scary disfiguring disease still matter to the community. If they have to be removed from society to keep others safe, so be it, but the desired goal is their healing and return. We aren’t allowed to write people off, even if it’s inconvenient, even if they’re hard to look at, even if they’ve done something wrong and are now suffering because of it. And that’s a message any of us, including a b’nai mitzvah student, can work with in a d’var Torah.