The two parashot “Tazria” and “Metzora,” that we read together this Shabbat, are found at the heart of the book of Leviticus and deal exhaustively and, perhaps too graphically, with a multitude of situations that fall on the spectrum between purity and profanity and the actions we are to take to deal with these states. These parashot and the issues that they raise are of the kind that most of us would choose to skip over out of lack of interest and our own discomfort. It seems that in more ordinary times it’s difficult to find a connection between the text and our lives today.
But a close reading may lead us to seek the human story within the parasha’s seemingly endless rules surrounding ‘nida’ (female purity rituals) after giving birth, leprosy, disfigurement of garments or in the home. Along with all of this, the scripture describes the priest’s role in handling the various situations ranging from impurity to purity.
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, who has studied these issues extensively, argues that the sequence of examples given in the parasha are meaningless in and of themselves, however, the spectrum between impurity and purity in various circumstances or settings as it relates to people, and to women in particular, is a constant reminder of our choices in life, and the possibility of change and movement through ritual action. These possibilities range from looking within ourselves to turning outward, between closeness and distance, and between death and life.
What is it like for the woman who safely gives birth and immediately afterward becomes ‘impure’? What is it like for the leper when the priest sentences him to another seven days of isolation? What is the experience like for those moving between these two extremes – pure and impure – when some such movements involve a dramatic transitional ceremony? Do these transitions free them and allow them to move through a kind of natural dynamic of life? Or do they carry traumas and difficulties with them back into the “safe space” of purity? Is this system of laws supposed to benefit the individual or is it intended to organize and institutionalize social order?
Traditional and secular Jews are usually disconnected from the tension between impurity and purity, but it seems to me that some of these biblical processes may relate to some social insights that are relevant today.
The distinction between who is inside the camp and who is outside, as well as life experiences that force us to confront mortality, or that evoke intense fear may require a recovery process in order to return to our normal routines. Common to all of the situations described in the parasha is that they could happen to any one of us. It’s not about them and us, but rather about our constantly-changing reality. Just like our current situation, there is no telling who will “become impure” by getting infected, and as such will have to “dwell outside of the camp,” by going into quarantine. This uncertainty engenders mobility in the private and social spheres. This dynamic also raises important questions like: Where do we place the woman or couple who has just given birth in this context? What place do we give to the sick and elderly who need us and may live in constant fear of death? What is the place for bereaved families who have had a horrific encounter with death and face the continuous dialogue of life in the here and now?
In Israel, we find ourselves in this special time, the week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaZikaron (memorial day for fallen soldiers) followed by Independence Day. In addition to these commemorative days, the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting crises, demand of us as individuals and as a society to take responsibility and seek those who are outside the camp – those whose encounter with death is unbearable, those who need care, support, warmth and recognition of their situation.
Tazria – Metzora are difficult parashot, but at the same time they ask us to take a hard look at reality and to touch life itself – between the body, the walls of the house and the clothing and to examine the situation. To touch, to see, to pay attention – and not to ignore.
It seems to me that the COVID-19 pandemic allows us to experience a bit of what happens to those who had to leave the Israelites’ camp. But the view of life from the outside is not always negative. It allows for the process of restarting, of rethinking. Leaving the camp also gives us an opportunity for self introspection. Sometimes it allows for quiet, and gives us an excuse to take a break from the constant noise of life. It seems to me that these days we are all trying to figure out how to re-enter the camp – that is, how to go back outside to our familiar routines, with careful and measured steps and, most importantly, safely. Perhaps during biblical times, the ceremonies and leadership of the priests provided solutions for those whose time had come to re-enter the camp, and get back to their lives and routine. And we should expect our leaders to show us the way professionally and confidently, step by step, back to a safe routine during this new reality.