Parashat Tazria/Metzora—Rituals of Return - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Parashat Tazria/Metzora—Rituals of Return

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Rabbi Nancy Wiener, D.Min.
Dr. Paul and Trudy Steinberg Chair in Human Relations; Founding Director, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York

Wear gloves. Wear a Mask. Don’t walk within 6 feet of anyone.

Don’t open your mailbox without gloves.  Leave boxes outside your home for a few days, the virus can remain on the surface.  Disinfect all hard surfaces.  Wash your clothes thoroughly.  Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds.

These and so many other warnings have dominated our waking hours for more weeks than we’d like to count.  A walk outside and moving from room to room in our own homes used to be sources of relaxation and enjoyment; now, with disinfectant in hand or donning protective gear we experience heightened anxiety engaging in life’s simplest activities. 

When we thought we’d be confined for a week or two, we girded ourselves for what seemed like an unbelievable new reality. Now that we know no one can predict with any certainty how long we’ll be confined, we realize that we also don’t know what we will do when restrictions are lifted, when we can return to a world that is currently beyond our reach.  How will the world be different?  How will we be different?

The possibility of periods of confinement—time spent separated from normal communal and daily life due to circumstances beyond one’s control, are the focus of the first part of this week’s double portion, Tazria.  Its detailed description of what precipitates the need for someone to be confined is only rivalled by the second portion, Metzora’s lengthy descriptions of what one does at the conclusion of confinement to successfully reenter communal life.   In these two portions, we learn how the members of the Israelite community all knew, in advance, what might lead to confinement, what would happen during that confinement, and what the steps were to return to communal life.  Moreover, they all knew that whether confined or not, whether physically in the camp or not, their status as Israelites was never in question. The only thing that changed was their ability to circulate among other community members without placing anyone or anything at risk.

The biblical writers were acutely aware that interpersonal interactions couldl become dangerous, even in the absence of visible weapons.  They intuited that when bodily boundaries were breached, when what was normally contained within one’s body flowed or erupted from it, that an individual’s daily routines, the equilibrium of their world, was thrown off and as a result they and others could be put at risk. 

For recurring breaches, such as menstruation, genital emissions, and post-partum female bodies, there was no need to consider each case separately. The periods of confinement were predetermined and proscribed. There is no guessing, no wondering, no anxiety.   

However for randomly occurring breaches, the Bible offers a case study that focuses on tzara’at.  In humans, Tzara’at encompassed a variety of skin conditions (erroneously translated for many generations as leprosy); in buildings it was an invasive condition that could literally compromise and destroy the integrity of a building’s structure.  If tzara’at was suspected, consultation with an expert diagnostician was required. No individual could self-diagnose, nor could a concerned family member or friend make the diagnosis.  The priest, the community’s expert diagnostician, engaged in a close differential diagnosis (hence the need for the painstaking details in countless verses in these two Torah portions).  

Once there was a positive diagnosis, the metzora (the individual diagnosed with tzara’at), like so many in our world today, needed to spend time “outside the camp” confined and apart from others for an indefinite period of time.  The time in confinement was marked by weekly visits from the priest who assessed the state of the condition to determine if and when the individual could rejoin the community.

From these two Torah portions, we learn that all Israelites knew two important things about confinement: a full return to community was possible and a successful return demanded three thing-- specific activities that focused on their external state (bathing or shaving/haircutting and washing one’s clothes), rituals that focused on their internal/spiritual state (immersion in a ritual bath and sometimes bringing an offering to God) and time (part of a day to a full week of waiting).  Return was never precipitous; it was a gradual process.   It had to be done correctly so the returning individual could regain a sense of equilibrium with themselves, the community and God.  The individual’s full reincorporation was necessary for the community’s well-being and for God to be able to dwell among them.  As the story of Miriam who suffered from tzara’at teaches us (Numbers 12) the community was unable to continue its journey through the desert, toward the promised land, until she was back among them.

Throughout these weeks, we have often wished there was someone in our world who could fill the role of the ancient Israelite priest: someone who could oversee and accompany us through this entire ordeal; someone who could explain the dangers posed to ourselves and others by an invisible, yet very real, destabilizing force.  Comfort and hope were readily available to our ancestors.  Knowing that they were always an integral part of their community, even when physically apart, was a source of comfort and strength.  Our contemporary communities had always depended on in-person contact as the primary means of affirming membership. In response to this crisis, we have been increasing our web presences.  We have more classes (for kids and adults), more drop-in groups, more community gatherings—concerts, lectures, etc throughout the day and evening.  We have devised systems for clergy and community members to be in contact with each other, individual to individual, so that no one feels lonely, even when they need to be physically alone.  In this unprecedented time, we are learning to live up to our moniker as a nation of priests in more concrete and tangible ways.    

And recently, we find ourselves being buoyed and feeling strengthened by the hope for return to normal social interactions without continued threat.  While we may have entered this period woefully unprepared for the realities that confronted us, we can start to prepare now for the next phase.  To enjoy the type of successful return that metzora of old did, we will need to experience external and internal transformations.  We will no longer hang out in sweats or pjs.  We will again be able to get our hair cut, attend exercise classes or go for a swim.  Our bodies will be tended to in ways that have fallen by the wayside during this time.  For our reentry to be successful, we can take time to really reflect on what we have been learning about ourselves and our world.  As this period of disequilibrium draws to a close, we can gain insights into what contributes to our sense of equilibrium and to our society’s and the world’s equilibrium, what affirms our own sense of integrity even when we are separated from people, tasks and roles that regularly contribute to it. 

In the case of the metzora, there was a final ritual that acknowledged the requisite multi-tiered transformations to return fully as a participating member of the community.  Mirroring a priest’s ordination ritual, the priest applied blood to the right ear, the right thumb and the right toe of the individual. Ear, thumb and toe, from head to toe, mind, heart and body.  When we reenter the world after this imposed separation and distancing, we can ignore the ways we have been affected and try to go back to life as before or we can embrace the ways our whole being has been affected and listen, touch and traverse the world with a heightened sense of who we are and what our relationship with God and the world have become. 

What can we do to consciously mark our reunion with family members?  What can we do to celebrate dinner and a movie with friends?   What will we do when we are literally working under the same roof again with our friends and colleagues?  How can we ritually mark our first Shabbat and/or holiday service in our congregational homes?  How can we mark the losses we have suffered as individuals and as a community?  How can we express our joy and gratitude?   We, the nation of priests, will be charged to create rituals, large and small, communal and personal, to help us acknowledge what we’ve been through and to feel fully ready to enter life anew, forever changed.  

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.