Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander
The parasha of Tazria-Metzora has generally been disliked by B’nei Mitzvah and drash-writers for its difficult subject matter that seems far away from contemporary life. However, this is now the second time that we have read the portion in the context of our own world-wide illness, and with regard to how communities are trying to control the spread of Covid-19. It no longer seems so strange and incomprehensible for us to have to make vital decisions, and this dread portion now describes situations and possible responses that are all too real in 2021.
The ancient words of the Torah never change, but we do. This week the Torah speaks of isolation and quarantine, words that pepper our daily news bulletins every day in every language. And in our reading of Tazria-Metzora, in the context of the Coronavirus, we are no longer so repelled by the exclusion of the leper, and the harshness of the conditions imposed on them. We have greater experience of the sadness and loneliness of those who are sick, but we also “identify with the other perspective, with the examining priest and the need of society to protect itself.”1 We are reminded of the importance of pikuach nefesh, of putting first the preservation of life, and that this is as holy as our words of prayer. And, month after month after month, we have put aside our personal need for the physical presence of loved ones and friends in order to protect those who are vulnerable, and prevent further infection. For Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat we have not prayed together in our sanctuaries, we have not sung together, and we have not shared an oneg. We have followed the guidelines and the rules, with the hope that this holy work can cleanse the community from sickness. We have done our best.
There are many verses in our portion that speak of cleansing: “the one to be cleansed shall wash their clothes … and bathe in water; then they shall be clean … on the seventh day they shall wash their clothes and bathe their body in water; then they shall be clean.”2 The power of water to refresh and renew is clear, as we have remembered through our increased attention to washing and disinfecting our hands. However, as we count to twenty and scrub all the crevices, it is time to consider that this is not just about washing away the past. We are also preparing for the future. What will life be like once everyone is vaccinated? Here in Italy, my city returned to an “Orange Zone” status after several weeks back in official total lockdown, and the centre feels full of people, even without the usual influx of tourists. Facebook was awash earlier this week with photographs of my English friends drinking beer in pub gardens. Plans have been announced for the return of spectators to football matches and other sporting and cultural events. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for many of us, and we cannot wait to return to normal.
Tazria-Metzora teaches us the power of water to cleanse, and we have certainly learned that lesson. We have kept ourselves alive, sustained ourselves and made it to this moment. We are grateful. Now it is time to consider what we mean by “normal”. Does that mean how life was before the pandemic? Or might we have learned from this experience that there need to be changes going forward? It’s not enough to be physically cleansed, now it is time to turn our attention to our souls.
Many years ago Rabbi Elyse Goldstein taught me about the spiritual potential of the mikvah. She explained that the flowing water of the mikvah takes what was from our bodies and souls, and carries it away. Entering this flow, and letting go of the past, we open ourselves to new experiences and feelings and thoughts. The water helps us to transition from one state of being to another: from the days when we have the potential to create life to those when we cannot, upon entering the family of the Jewish people, and from a traumatic experience into a place of healing. Might such a ritual have a part to play in the transition we now face? Could it carry us back from isolation into the camp? Whether it is a visit to a mikvah, or a nearby river, or the sea, let us consider the power of water to help cleanse our souls, and prepare us for the work of tikkun olam that lies ahead.
1Rabbi Dr Ulrike Offenberg, WUPJ Drash 19.04.20
2Leviticus 14:8-9, also 14:47 for example.
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