Tazria – Metzorah 5783
Lev. 12:1 – 15:33
Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss
Tazria Metzorah used to be one of the most difficult Torah portions in which to relate. It discusses a mysterious skin rash that appears on a person, often explained as a discoloring or whitening of the skin. Rather than go to a doctor, the infected person would then go to the High Priest for them to determine if the disease was in fact, tzaraat. Why a priest and not a doctor? Besides the fact that they didn’t yet have modern medicine, the ancient Israelites believed that the source of these sicknesses was spiritual. If the infection was deemed tzaraat, the person would be deemed tameh—impure and exiled from the camp, placed in quarantine for 7 days. If the priest did not find it to be a serious infection, the person was given a clean bill of health by being called tahor-pure.
Upon my first reading of this text, several years ago, it seemed insensitive to label individuals as pure or impure and to isolate those from the community. The priest would go as far as to walk around calling out “Tamei Tamei-Impure Impure.” Talk about embarrassing!
Then covid happened. And we did the same thing. It wasn’t the high priest putting us in quarantine but rather the CDC guidelines regulating how long someone infected with or exposed to covid had to separate themselves from his or her family and the community. The whispering began, “Did you hear, So and So has covid?” We realized that isolating the pandemic was the only way to prevent it from spreading and infecting others.
While infectious diseases have become more relatable to our contemporary lives, we still don’t view an infection of Covid as a spiritual illness. It was a pandemic, a medical aberration. Rather, living with covid changed the way we viewed our spiritual wellness. We changed on conception of how often we had to be in the public sphere and learned to work from the private sphere. Suddenly rules for working from home and the need to physically go into a workspace became blurry. Today we are more comfortable discussing our personal preferences and how we can work more efficiently. We started talking about ourselves more holistically and have begun to lift the stigma associated with mental and spiritual health. On Shabbat, we pray not just for healing of the body, but also refuach hanefesh-the healing of the spirit.
Sometimes we need a spiritual check up as much as we need a physical checkup. While today we go to a doctor’s office to treat our physical health, hopefully the synagogue is a place where we can come to check in on our spiritual health. (Although this of course, is not a replacement for a trained therapist). Today we don’t need a High Priest to diagnose us, we each have equal access to spirituality. Rather the synagogue sets up a safe space and mindful environment to allow us to check in spiritually.
Cantor David Fair of Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan often asks his congregants these reflective questions
- Have you ever had a spiritual experience or spiritual moment? If so, when and what were you doing?
- What brings you happiness?
- What are you grateful for?
- When was the last time you felt a deep connection with someone?
- Metaphorically, are you where you want to be in life? If not, what’s preventing that? What can you do to move in that direction, even in a very small way?
- In Leviticus 19, it says, “v’ahavta l’rey’echa kamokha,” meaning “love your neighbor as yourself.” Have you loved your neighbor as yourself?
When we are feeling spiritually depleted, perhaps we also need a spiritual quarantine. Shabbat comes each week to offer us this opportunity to withdraw and reflect. We all need personal and private time as well as communal time to feel recharged. Perhaps we could see the concept of tahor and tameh not as labels of health and infirmity but rather as an opportunity to check in with ourselves—to see where we are—mentally and spiritually. It is ok to take a time out when needed, in fact, Judaism offers us a Sabbath each and every week to cleanse ourselves of our spiritual impurities. So this Shabbat-ask yourself how are you feeling spiritually? Do you need a spiritual quarantine? If you need it, Tazria Metzorah tells us that it is critical we take it.