Dvar Torah: A Letter from Parshat Tazria to the Jewish People

Dear Jewish community,

My name is Parshat Tazria; yes, I am this week’s Torah portion, the one that speaks of skin affections, scaly eruptions and scalls, skin discolorations and streaks, hair that falls out, leprosy, impurity and how an individual must be isolated from the rest of the community during the time of his or her impurity…and more.

Along with my neighbor Parshat Metzora, I am the parsha that upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs tend not to want, one that on the surface has nothing to do with our modern observance of Judaism and modern medicine as well.

Like the isolated individual, the one with the leprous affection who must identify himself or herself with torn clothes, uncovered head, and by covering our upper lip, the one who must call out ‘Impure! Impure!’ while walking out of the camp, out of the community, to be quarantined until the disease passes…Like this individual, I’m the Torah portion for which some people scratch their heads and wonder, why, oh, why do we read this anymore?

The great readers of the Torah, like Rashi, were kind and gave me due consideration. He reminds us all that Rabbi Simlai in the midrash gives us a good reason why I, the parsha about purities and impurities on humans, follow Parshat Shemini, the parsha that details the signs of pure and impure animals. Rabbi Simlai explains, “Just as the formation of human beings in the Genesis creation stories follows the creation of domesticated and wild land animals and birds, so too the teachings about human beings are explained after the teachings about the variety of animals.”(Vayikra Rabbah 14:1) Ibn Ezra also gives me the same nod.

It’s good to feel like one has a place in the chain of unfolding revelation and teaching.

But even if there’s a place for me here, even if we read and study me, it’s difficult to figure out just what I’m saying especially since we do not isolate the impure anymore.  We’re all impure.  We reminded ourselves of that last week on Shabbat Parah when we studied the ritual of the red heifer that purified us in the past but that is no longer in effect.

This is the kind of thing I think about while waiting quietly and patiently while the Jewish people chant the other 53 Torah portions.

I think about the way Nechama Lebowitz brings forward the commentary of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the Meshech Chochma, who teaches about me, “The preoccupation with these plagues, entrusted to the judgment of Aaron and his sons, is one of the mysteries of the Torah…”

In other words, it is not the diseases themselves that are a mystery, it is the emphasis here in Leviticus about these diseases that is the mystery. After all, as Nechama Lebowitz argues, “If the plague denotes a natural phenomenon requiring isolation as a preventive measure against contagion, the question arises, why has the Torah selected this disease, and has not alerted us to the countless natural risks that surround us in our daily life, like poisonous plants, wild beasts and dangerous illnesses, but left their discoveries to human intellect, judgment and research, so that he may become partner to God’s creation.”(Lebowitz, Leviticus – Volume 1, p. 185)

Please don’t think me ungrateful — I am part of the Torah and that is an honor. The questions above are significant and insightful, and while I do often feel like a second class citizen to parshiyot like Vayera — with the Binding of Isaac, or Beshalach — the Song of the Sea, I do think I’m still around and that I’m still chanted for a reason.

You see, when we roll to my neighbor Metzora next week, we will find that when the quarantined individual is ready for purification, the kohen, the priest, takes the initiative and goes outside the camp himself to where the affected person is. The priest goes himself! God’s representative, the one who offers the holy sacrifices and performs the holy rituals in the most holy place, strikes out to give attention to one person whom the priest then prepares to come before God at the holy place for a public ceremony to demonstrate to the world that he or she is pure again and ready to rejoin the community.

And so I am the humbly worded beginning of a clarion call for communities over the millennia, and through until today, to actively seek out those who are disconnected and disaffected, those who feel that they gain little to nothing from association with Jewish community, those who have suffered in silence illnesses physical and mental, those who are marginalized because a synagogue or JCC or other Jewish institution was not structured to help or ready to help at the time of that person’s greatest need.

I am the clarion call to the friends and family of those who quietly slip through the gaps, who become lost in the wash of time, people who we could help the most if only we could find ways to hear their cry, like the sound of ‘Impure! Impure!’ that once caused everyone to turn and look.   No, in this case, the comparison is thin, since what the person in need is saying is, ‘I’m in need of chesed, lovingkindness,’ and so they would be saying, ‘Chesed, Chesed…’

During my many off weeks, waiting for my turn to be read, I peruse Jewish books and articles and recently came across a piece by Rabbi Harold Kushner in the Weekday Sim Shalom (p. xiii) that speaks to what we could offer here to people in need, and to people who may not even perceive they have a need, as he writes, “What does religion offer that we lonely human souls need? In a word, it offers community. Our place of worship offers us a refuge, an island of caring in the midst of a hostile, competitive world. In a society that segregates the old from the young, the rich from the poor, the successful form the struggling, the house of worship represents one place where the barriers fall and we all stand equal before God.”

I wish I could write those sentiments between the columns in the Torah right where I, Parshat Tazria, begin, but we’ll have to settle with taking those thoughts and turning them into action. And if I can contribute that to the continuing evolution of Jewish people and communities, then I’ve done my job well even if I’m not at the top of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah speech list.

Sincerely yours,

Parshat Tazria

About the Author
Neil A. Tow grew up in Maryland in a family active in their Conservative synagogue. After studying International Relations and Spanish in college, he decided to pursue rabbinic studies at Jewish Theological Seminary. His love of learning and teaching continues as he is pursuing now a Master's in Jewish Education from the Davidson School at JTS.