It is often said that every year when you read the same Torah passages, you are in a different place, spiritually and otherwise. Therefore, one will always be learning new meanings and discovering new insights from them. No more is that true than in this week’s Torah parshah Tazria-Metzora.
Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1- 15:33) is a double parshah containing a list of rules concerning ritual purity and impurity, mostly having to do with leprosy. The parshah begins with the requirement for women a certain number of days after childbirth to immerse in a mikvah as well as offer animals for sacrifice at the temple. Then, it commands the circumcision of a boy child at 8 days of age. The next three chapters discuss an extensive list of what has to be all possible encounters with leprosy, including the infection of a home itself. The parshah prescribes various interactions between lepers, homes with leprosy, and the kohenim. Mostly, the kohenim decide if the skin lesions people or houses have are leprosy, another skin disease or harmless. If diseased or if the lesions are inconclusive, the people and houses enter quarantine. The kohenim also consult on whether a leper or house is healed and how to go about atonement. For atonement, former lepers immerse in the mikvah and pay for the kohenim to offer specific sacrifices at the temple. Homes also undergo a type of ritual purification by the kohenim when they have been healed of leprosy. This double parshah ends with immersion requirements for emissions of semen and menstrual blood.
Historically, there are two considerations, which I have discussed in other posts, to address first. To begin with, there is the ancient world’s understanding of disease as punishment for sin. This sin can either be the sin of the diseased person or punishment from generations past. For more about how this cycle of sin, punishment, repentance and atonement work as well as my thoughts on it, see here.
The second historical peculiarity of this parshah, which is found at the beginning and end of the parshah, is its requirements regarding ritual purity and bodily emissions. When the second temple was destroyed, the obligations regarding ritual im/purity continued for women but not for men. I have discussed the sexism of this ruling here.
That is not to say that I find the practice of ritual immersion problematic. Quite the opposite to be honest. I have discussed what I see to be the spiritual benefits of the practice here.
Returning to contemporary times, this year more than any other (besides perhaps 2020), the parshah reflects our lives. The heart of the parshah concerns the diagnosis of disease, disease prevention through quarantine, pronunciations of cleanliness and uncleanliness, and ritual bathing. For example, Leviticus 13:4 reads, “But if it is a white bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and its appearance is not deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, the kohen shall quarantine the person with the lesion for seven days.” Here, even though the Israelites did not understand disease the way we do, they were concerned with the spread of leprosy amongst their community and sought advice from the kohenim. I’m not an expert on ancient knowledge of disease transmission, but they must have known something about how contagious leprosy is and how it spreads.
In the times of Covid, we go to testing centers for answers instead of priests. We also follow the advice of those in the know – doctors and scientists – and work from home (if we can), social distance whenever possible, wear masks, and religiously wash our hands. Like the ancient Israelites, quarantine is a common requirement. For us though, we enter quarantine when one has interacted with a person who has been recently diagnosed with Covid.
I am surprised though by the number of people who have not been following the rules and are still not doing so. Many deny the harm of the disease and its consequences. Many also don’t want others, as they say, controlling their lives. Was life more precarious and fear more encompassing in ancient times? Were these rules written because people didn’t want to listen? I assume not. Most ancient peoples were not in such a privileged position as to be free of some levels of worry. I presume most would not belittle the effects of leprosy and its needs for social distancing. In fact, I imagine most would be extremely fearful of the disease.
I could go on, but Tazria-Metzora has more to say. This time let us look at vaccines and cures. The parshah highlights how leprosy followed the Isrealites into the Promised Land. Leviticus 14:34 reads, “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara’ath upon a house in the land of your possession…” The Israelites could not escape it. However amazing the Promised Land was in their imaginations, they were told that it was not a cure!
In this regard, we should heed the warnings that the vaccine isn’t a cure either. It will not magically make Covid disappear. The vaccine however offers important protection from the most severe forms of the illness. This is sorely needed. Yet, the process of distribution between the haves and have-nots means that to vaccine the entire world will take a long while.
This can be extremely disheartening. First, there is the unjustness of it all. Also, the longer the pandemic drags on, the more we find it difficult to cope with the ways in which Covid has changed our lives. Even some of those who have heeded medical advice and followed the protocols seemed to have found a savior in the vaccine. Many can’t wait for life to return to “normal.” To them, I say as others have said before me, and this is key: what is normal about life in a patriarchal, capitalist, environmentally destructive system? Current research suggests that this lifestyle has been extremely detrimental to the health of our planet and its inhabitants. It is up for debate whether it has created an environment in which Covid has thrived, but what is not up for debate is that we are well on our way to such possibilities due to global warming and environmental destruction.
The lesson of Tazria-Metzora is: where one can make changes, one should. The ancient Israelites took all matters of precautions to prevent the spread of leprosy. This, in turn, surely saved lives.
The significance of saving lives entered Judaism later. One of the most quoted examples of it is found in the Jerusalem Talmud’s Sahredin: when one saves a life, it is as if one saves an entire world. Our behaviour in the midst of a pandemic saves lives and thus saves worlds. We have also been granted the opportunity to change our treatment of the earth as well. Oh, that we should all heed this lesson!
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.