11 April 2013, Tazria/M’tzora
Ah, Leviticus, what joyful words it brings. For those of you who have had the pleasure of reading this week’s double-header portions, you know what you’re in for tonight. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a riveting read that describes, in detail, ritual cleanliness of post-partum women, lepers and those with other skin afflictions and ailments.
The first of the portions is Tazria. In a nutshell, Tazria relates to the ritual cleanliness of a woman after giving birth. The portion prescribes that a woman must stay away from the mikdash for a certain amount of time following child birth. At the conclusion of the time period (which is dependent on whether she gave birth to a male or female), the mother brings a sacrifice to the kohan to restore her ritual purity.
The portion goes on to describe the how the kohanim diagnose and treat tzara’at – a skin disease which is believed to refer to leprosy. The portion outlines how the afflicted person must stay away from the mikdash and may return only once the condition has healed and the person has offered sacrifices to become ritually clean yet again.
The second portion, M’tzora, discusses what happens when tzara’at appears in houses and clothing, and how to ensure that the place remains pure. It also mentions, for the first time, ritual immersion.
There are a couple of reasons why I found the portions challenging. The first, that we’re talking about details of messy things like puss, bodily fluids, scabs, rashes, hair discolouration….you get the idea. This is uncomfortable and the detail is a struggle to move beyond in order to see the portion’s deeper meanings.
The second challenge is that we are reading about scenarios that deal with ‘tumah’ which can be translated as ritual impurity, a concept that is difficult for many of us to get behind. We’re told that Tumah can occur in three circumstances:
1) Contact with a dead body
2) Being afflicted with a skin condition
3) Contact with bodily emissions that have to do with generating life (menstrual blood, semen) and women who have just given birth.
If you are associated with tumah you cannot enter the sanctuary as a person must first have their purity restored.
This idea seems, on the surface, difficult to relate to given that we are dealing with ancient and archaic ritual and temple practices that do not apply in our modern world.
So what to make of these portions? Throughout the Parashot, there is a common thread – that of exclusion and distance from the community due to being unclean, Leviticus 13:46 reads:
He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp
Being unclean sounds really bad, right? But how can it be since impurity is brought about by things that are part of the life cycle? Eitz Hayim comments that it is not necessarily a negative and that being deemed ritually impure was not a punishment or banishment, but rather an acknowledgement of a natural kind of holiness that was different from the holiness to be found in the sanctuary. If that is the case, then what does ‘dwelling outside the camp’ really mean? It is true, child birth and illness can provide us as individuals and communities with powerful moments of personal and spiritual growth. But they can also create communication barriers and isolation and their holiness is not always seen.
People who are ‘outside the camp’ often have issues to deal with that are different from those of us going about the day-to-day activities of life. I am sure at one time or another we have all felt as though we have been isolated and although we would not likely use the term ‘impure’ to describe it, there have been times when we have felt like there is something wrong with us and we have not had the ability to share what we are feeling or thinking with others or ask for help and this has led to isolation.
The other aspect is our own response to those ‘outside the camp’. Fear often contributes to a society’s exclusion of sick people from normal human interaction. One example is how communities deal with issues of mental health. The stigma of mental illness is present in many families and communities and yet it remains a taboo, and so often those suffering are ‘outside the camp’. Although physical illness and death are never easy, at least we have rituals that we understanding to help each other through the difficult times. But with things like mental illness and disabilities, it can be tricky to figure out what our role is as a community.
Another group of people ‘outside the camp’ are those living in aged care homes. You too often see people there who have been left outside of life. Often, communities shy away from them. Fearing illnesses they do not understand, fearing death, fearing contact.
Tazria and M’tzora began to take on considerably deeper meaning for me once I acknowledged the importance of being aware of those are ‘outside the camp’ and the importance of bringing someone back into the community to has been isolated or in the language of the Torah ‘restoring their purity’.
So a couple of questions I would like to leave you with tonight to start our discussion are:
What actions or conditions cause an individual to be isolated from our community today?
What are our responsibilities as young Jews in this community to bring the isolated back ‘into the camp’?