A Time of Separation

by Bill Welch, board member

I discovered ironically that last week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora, contains among other things a detailed description about how the community deals with what was perceived to be a highly contagious disease (sound familiar?). It discusses in graphic detail certain disfigurative conditions known as “Tzara’at” on peoples‘ skin, clothing, and even in the walls of their homes.

Here is an excerpt (Lev. 13:1-4): “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection.”

After a providing a number of other graphic examples about unexplained streaky green or red discolorations of peoples’ clothing or the walls of their homes, the text goes on to describe the method employed by the community for dealing with such infections.

It goes like this. After an initial examination by the priest, a person who presents symptoms of infection is put into isolation for seven days. After seven days, the person is re-examined and if the symptoms remain unchanged, he is put back into isolation for another seven days. After the second seven days, the person is again examined by the priest and if the symptoms have faded, he is released, but warned that if the symptoms worsen or reappear, then he must return to the priest for re-examination, and the process starts all over again.

So what is really going on here? I don’t think this is merely a description of an early version of the Centers for Disease Control.

Rabbi Shefa Gold says that the condition of tzara’at, which is loosely translated as “leprosy,” might be understood in this context as a difficult inner spiritual passage or conflict that manifests as a disturbance on the surface. Other commentary tells us that tzara’at is best explained as a physical manifestation of internal moral shortcomings—in other words a physical, visible punishment for our sins.

In any case, the text clearly tells us that someone with this condition must be separated from the community for a time in order to resolve whatever is going on; however, the text does not tell us what actually happens while the person is in isolation. Rabbi Gold and others speculate that it is a time of introspection or self-reflection: a time to understand one’s own weaknesses and failings, or perhaps a time to resolve inner conflicts that are causing the outer visible symptoms. The concept here is that personal growth first must take place on the inside before it becomes visible to the outside world.

So what happens when a person is ready to return to the community? The text provides great detail about the ritual for “cleansing the leper” after he is healed or ready to return. Among other things, it involves two lambs, two birds, cedar wood, flour, oil, and hyssop. The ritual requires that the person wash his clothes, bathe his body, and shave off all of his hair, including his beard and eyebrows. It also requires an additional seven days period of semi-isolation (I suppose just to make sure one last time that all issues have been resolved). The text also provides for a scaled down version of the items needed for the ritual in the event the person is poor and can only afford one lamb, thus letting us know that the path to return to the community is open to all.

I think the most important concepts in this text are not the graphic descriptions of the afflictions, or the detailed quarantine procedures, or the elaborate return-to -the-community rituals, but rather the idea that, for anyone who must be separated from society, he or she is never forgotten and there is clear path to return no matter who you are.

So in this time of our COVID-19 isolation, let’s all remember that we are not forgotten and that eventually there will be a path to return to normalcy. In the meantime, perhaps we can use this time of separation for some self-reflection and personal growth, so that when we are ready to be physically back together again, we return with better versions of ourselves.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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