Tazria, Metzora, and Social Distancing- 2020
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
An unknown illness erupts. Waiting for a diagnosis, and then, quarantine. Have the symptoms dissipated? Keep checking and continue to stay isolated from the community. Examination by a healthcare professional to determine if it’s safe to be with people. If so, purification rituals and cleansing before reuniting with friends and family. COVID- 19? No, this week’s Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora.
This week’s parsha describes what is often translated as leprosy- tzaraat, yet, technically is some other kind of skin affliction. It is the priest, in his role of medicine man, who is called in to examine the person who is ill and suspected to have tzaraat. If the priest determines that it is, indeed, tzaraat, there are 7-days of social distancing, then another examination. This cycle repeats until the priest determines that it is safe for the individual to reconnect with the community.
The priest needs to check personally. No diagnosis is made on the basis of rumor or suspicion. In fact, the phrase “v’ra-ah ha-kohen,” “the priest shall look,” appears no less than 30x in the text. The priest provides a very personal level of care. He is there, in person, with the afflicted individual. If there’s one thing Jewish tradition understands, it is how hard it is to be separated from the community. It is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the individual who must be separated for medical reasons is still afforded a great deal of support.
It has been so touching to me how our Temple Chai community has come together to provide support as we are all in isolation. We feel the pain of the person who is quarantined uniquely as we read Tazria and Metzora in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Our caring community has undertaken the task of calling every single member of the congregation to assess how they are doing and what needs they may have, from having a package picked up to be mailed, to help with livestreaming services, to a kind word and a listening ear.
In Chapter 13, verse 3, we read that, as the priest examines the person who is ill, he is specifically directed to look at him.. This may not seem noteworthy, and yet, when someone is sick they are all too often reduced to “a case of x,” and not seen as a whole person. “See him,” the priest is told, not, “see IT.” Commentators emphasize the compassion called for in addressing someone who is suffering. Make sure you are seeing them in their totality, they remind us, see him or her, not just the illness, not just “it.”
The metzora, the person who is suffering, is required to announce their impurity if they are out among the community, so that people know to give them space, to socially distance themselves, as it were. While this might seem terribly embarrassing, again, the rabbis say, no, this is so that the community will be alerted of the need to pray for the individual’s strength and healing. We pray for healing for all those who suffer from COVID-19, and, in fact, for all of us who are separated from our beloved community.
The Sefat Emet focuses on the opening verse, “This is the teaching about the afflicted person.” The Chassidic commentator connects this with a verse in Isaiah (57:19)- “Peace, peace to the far and to the near.” The far person, says the Sefat Emet, is the afflicted person who is separated from the community.
The Torah recognizes how hard it is to be apart from others, and delegates the priest to work tirelessly to reunite the person who is in pain with loved ones as quickly as possible. Yet, the Torah also makes provisions to ensure public health and safety, setting in place structured movements towards reunion to protect everyone’s well-being.
It’s hard for all of us to be separated right now. We struggle with ways to stay connected and are so grateful for our caring volunteers and for the blessed technology that brings us Zoom learning and livestreamed services. We are steeped in compassion for those who are afflicted and pray for their health and recovery. And we pray for ourselves, as well, that, when that time comes that we can be together once again, we never, ever take for granted the profound blessing of being together in community.