This week’s Torah portion has always been one that has seemed somewhat esoteric and hard to understand. Then the coronavirus happened.
The double portion of Tazria/Metzora describes various skin diseases and how they are treated. If one has an outbreak, or a rash, or lesions, they go to the priest to decides whether or not the person is “clean” or “unclean.” If unclean, there is a time of separation from the camp and ritual sacrifices upon reentry.
The terms “clean” and “unclean” regarding physical illness are always challenging to accept, but the intent of the text is to describe more of a spiritual impurity: the physical illness is seen as an outward manifestation of some sort of inner shortcoming. But this raises its own challenges, as we have a hard time ascribing illness to moral failings as the biblical authors and early commentators did.
So let’s just take a step back and say that regardless of the details, the text is simply describing a mysterious ailment that requires individuals to be put in quarantine, apart from the rest of the community.
Now this portion sounds hauntingly familiar.
Of course in our case it is not just those who are ailing who are in quarantine. In order to slow the spread we are all in a form a quarantine, separated from our community and keeping our distance from other people.
In the Torah, after the one with the skin affliction (usually translated as the “leper” or “one with leprosy”) has spent time outside the camp, the priest would go to visit them to see if they have been healed. If so, then there is an elaborate ritual that is performed. If you will indulge me, I offer a lengthly excerpt from the text (feel free to just skim!):
God spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. These shall be presented before God, with the man to be cleansed, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, by the priest who performs the cleansing. The priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it with the log of oil as a guilt offering, and he shall elevate them as an elevation offering before God. The lamb shall be slaughtered at the spot in the sacred area where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered. For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, goes to the priest; it is most holy. The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before God. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot—over the blood of the guilt offering. The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being cleansed. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before God. The priest shall then offer the sin offering and make expiation for the one being cleansed of his uncleanness. Last, the burnt offering shall be slaughtered, and the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meal offering on the altar, and the priest shall make expiation for him. Then he shall be clean.Leviticus 14:1-20
Thanks for sticking through this, and this description adds to an already weird and seemingly irrelevant text. Yet the point here, and why I quoted the whole passage, is to note that the Torah spends a tremendous amount of ink on how to reintegrate one back into the camp after a period of quarantine. Indeed, it seems that the reintegration is almost more difficult and deliberate and important than the original separation. It is easy to separate someone, it is harder to reconnect.
We will need to be deliberate in our return as well. In the coming weeks and months we will start to see how individuals, groups, organizations, and businesses will be able to “open up.” It will not be easy, and it won’t be all at once. I anticipate that large gatherings will take a while to return. (I’m already beginning to think about what a virtual High Holidays will look like as I’m assuming we will not be able to completely return this year.) It will be, as Governor Inslee says, like turning a dial, not flipping a switch.
And we should accept this deliberation. Like the intricate ritual of the leper and the priest, we need to pay attention to each of the steps it will take to come back together, and how to do it in a way that allows for meaningful connection and the safety of all.
Healing is a forward process, not a return to what was. When we heal we still maintain the scars of that which wounded us. When we emerge from our “staying at home” and social distancing, and reintegrate with one another, we may be different as individuals and as a congregation. So we can begin to ask ourselves what that return will look like. What vestiges of the past we will maintain, and what new behaviors or tools will we introduce? How can we emerge “clean”–whole in body and spirit, impacted by our experience and yet ready to face a new future?