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Naomi Graetz

Impurity of Skin and Sin: Parshat Tazria

Today marks the day when I have finally finished teaching the book of Job which  we started studying in November 2022. Job’s body was assaulted by a very difficult skin disease. So reading parshat tazria this week is very fitting since it includes many descriptions of all sorts of wounds. And I have a personal interest in this parsha, since I have become an unofficial nurse for my husband who is undergoing treatment for Basil Cell Carcinoma (BCC).

SIXTY SIX DAYS OF BONDING

The parsha begins with women’s differential impurity after childbirth (33 days if she gives birth to a male and double that – 66 days if she gives birth to a female). This is followed by a sin offering she brings after the period of impurity. And then presumably she can then resume intercourse, get pregnant and give birth yet again in nine months’ time. I always pondered about why she stays impure a longer period after giving birth to a girl. I see it as positive discrimination—affirmative action. She gets more time off and can bond with her child—which gives girls an advantage over boys.  I also wonder why does a woman have to bring a sin offering? Actually, it might make sense to those of us who have given birth to a child, during the excruciating pains of doing so, having said “never again”.  Yet, a few days later, after bonding with the baby, we start planning to have the next one. The sin, for which we have to expiate, is that we said never again—which if carried out would be the end of humanity! And I could easily go on and write pages about this topic.

SORES GALORE

However, I cannot get the next part of the parsha out of my mind which consists of almost 60 verses in Leviticus 13:1-59: There is a list which only a dermatologist, i.e. a skin doctor can deal with:

a swelling; a rash; a discoloration; scaly affections on the skin of the body; hair in the affected patch has turned white deeper than the skin of the body.

All of this is to determine whether it is a “scale disease”.  Skin is what is on the outside and is the visible boundary which keeps the insides in. The terms describe in colorful detail what I see on my husband’s head—the insides forcing themselves out and changing the contours of his head. The difference is that he does not have to separate himself from the community and continues to partake of its social and religious activities. Every other day, I change the bandages and hope for the best; sometimes putting creams that this or that doctor recommended and other days hoping that the sores will dry out by themselves—letting nature take its course and having his skin return to normal. It is a never-ending task.  I do not envy the priests who have to diagnose their clients:

“If the discoloration remains stationary, not having spread, it is the scar of the inflammation; the priest shall pronounce that person pure.”

I look forward to the oncologist’s appointment next week, who will perhaps pronounce in priestly fashion that he is cured. If not, the treatment will have to continue.

BURNS

The parsha continues with burns. I had some experience with that when in 1974, after the Yom Kippur War , we teachers at Hebrew University were asked to volunteer and spend time conversing in English with soldiers who were in the burn facilities at Hadassah. I spent quite a bit of time there and got used to seeing different types of skin eruptions than those described in our parsha:

When the skin of one’s body sustains a burn by fire, and the patch from the burn is a discoloration, either white streaked with red, or white, the priest shall examine it. ….But if the discoloration has remained stationary, not having spread on the skin, and it is faded, it is the swelling from the burn. The priest shall pronounce that person pure, for it is the scar of the burn.

It is not clear to me why a person who has suffered a burn should be considered impure, even though the appearance of the skin of the person with burns and the leper are similar. Imagine if today, a soldier who is suffering from burns all over his body has to be examined by a priest to see if he can join the community or be in isolation.  On the other hand, he may have to be in isolation for medical reasons. Were our priests ahead of their times? Burn centers have similar protocols:

All patients with cutaneous burn injuries will be placed on isolation precautions and placed in a private room. 2. Patients who have the diagnosis of inhalation injury only do not require isolation. 3. When possible single patient use/disposable equipment and supplies will be used. 4. Curtains are to be changed in patient rooms after discharge of a burn patient. 5. When the patient is placed in the room, a burn isolation sign will be placed on the door/curtain. 6. Prior to the entry to a patient room everyone including EVS and patient family members will clean their hands and apply isolation gowns and gloves. 7. Prior to leaving the room PPE will be removed and discarded and hands will be washed. 8. All burn admissions are required to have a MRSA swab obtained as ordered by the provider.

BALDNESS

Finally, there is a discussion of a bald person; my husband has been bald since I met him when I was age 15 and he was age 19!  So, this also speaks to me:

If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is pure. If he loses the hair on the front part of his head and becomes bald at the forehead, he is pure.

So far, so good; however, the text goes on:

But if a white affection streaked with red appears on the bald part in the front or at the back of the head, it is a scaly eruption that is spreading over the bald part in the front or at the back of the head. The priest shall examine him: if the swollen affection on the bald part in the front or at the back of his head is white streaked with red, like the leprosy of body skin in appearance, he is a leprous man; he is impure. The priest shall pronounce him impure; he has the affection on his head. …The person shall be impure as long as the disease is present. Being impure, that person shall dwell apart—in a dwelling outside the camp.

This brings me back to the reality of the never-ending sores on my husband’s bald head. Once again, I am grateful that I do not live in biblical times as did Miriam, Moses’s and Aaron’s sister.

MIRIAM’S SKIN DISEASE

When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with snow‑white scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my Lord, do not hold against us the sin which we unwittingly committed. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from her mother’s womb with half her flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to God, saying, “O Lord, please heal her!” But the Lord said to Moses, “….Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.” So Miriam was shut out of camp for seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted (Numbers 12:10‑15).

Years ago, I imagined how Miriam must have felt when she had to dwell outside the camp after being stricken with leprous scales. I wrote a modern midrash about her coping with this. I am sharing excerpts of what I wrote then:

This is much worse than I thought! I must find something to do. It was the morning of her third day of banishment. How much longer? I’ve never been punished like this before. Before she was obliged to leave, Moses and Aaron had assured her that she would be outside the camp for only seven days. “Only seven days, indeed!” she thought. There were no exceptions to the rule: Anyone who was diagnosed as having a skin disease had to go outside the camp for a week—alone—to simply wait for the disease to run its course. The priestly families could differentiate between various rashes, but chose to refer to each outbreak of the skin as tzara’at or leprosy. Despite its name, very few had the dreaded variety of illness called Egyptian leprosy.

Miriam was professionally interested in her own illness. She was a bat‑kohen, a daughter of a priestly family and intimately acquainted with the diagnosis of disease. She was never consulted publicly, but her private opinions were highly valued because of her many years of experience.

The priests claimed the different categories of leprosy were all caused by sin. If the person’s contagion stopped, he would be pronounced healthy and be required to bring a sacrifice in the form of a sin offering. If not pronounced healthy, he would remain alone outside the camp for another seven days to seek out the source of his sin and engage in intensive soul‑searching.

Miriam was beset by terrible doubts about the severity of her punishment. She thought it unfair that only she was being punished, and not her brother Aaron as well. After all, together, the two of them had voiced complaints about Moses. She bitterly criticized the fact that those who were diseased had to expiate their sin by spending the entire period of quarantine alone—separated from others similarly afflicted. What kind of God demands that one endure this mental and physical pain in a state of loneliness! Miriam’s rebellious thoughts were interrupted by two people with skin diseases who hesitantly approached her for help.

Even here, I am to have no peace! She thought, but then relented. They need me! I am their leader! They have the right to ask me for help. She looked closely at one of them. It was Hur. “Who diagnosed you as having leprosy?” Miriam asked. “I’ve never seen this variety of the disease before.” It was my son, Bezalel the painter. He observed a change in the color of my skin and told me to go to the priests. I wanted to avoid an open trial to determine what sin caused it so I asked your nephew, Nadav for a private opinion.

“That was unwise. Nadav is not as experienced in these matters as some of the others. Let me look at your back and see if I can find the tell‑tale signs.” Hur removed his upper garment and Miriam inspected his skin. After a few moments, she said, “I have good news. It looks like it is just a temporary rash. So you will not have to make a confession of your sins after all. Between us,” she added, “this place is atonement enough for any crime. As long as you are here, however, let us go and see who needs help.”

Miriam made the rounds outside the camp. She met people with different skin diseases. Each person’s major complaint was the loneliness. She suggested that the people congregate to take care of each other; that they put up makeshift huts for those who were really sick. The healthier people could care for the very sick.

She was pleased to be able to use her organizational abilities. She realized that she had re‑interpreted the law of badad yeshev, “you shall remain in complete isolation” (Leviticus 13, 46) and hoped she would not be punished for usurping the power of interpretation from Moses. She was aware of the danger of stepping out of line for she had witnessed what had happened to Aaron’s sons.

She felt that it was going to be difficult to worship a God who afflicted people with diseases for not agreeing with Him. This is not the God we left Egypt to worship. I cannot accept that this is God’s doing.

It is lonely here. Four more days to go.

And the midrash adds:

The Holy One of Blessing said: ‘I am the priest, I quarantine her, I deem her ritually pure.’ That is what is written: “The people did not travel until Miriam was readmitted”  (Vayikra Rabba 15:8).

THE PERILS OF ISOLATION AND RESPONSIBLITY

It is now six months, during which more than one hundred of our innocent civilians have been held captive in Gaza. For those who survive this ordeal, life will never be the same. Some of the captives who have been released spoke of the isolation, the boredom; the never-ending fear; the hunger; the torture; the demeaning; the loss of self-esteem. They have been worn down both physically and mentally. It is difficult to think about what they are going through. On the one hand there is that world and on the other hand there is the ordinary world of life going on as usual. It is very important that we keep the captive hostages in mind on a daily basis—they may be geographically apart from us, but they are a part of us as well. We should all think that there but for the grace of God go we. And we are responsible for keeping them in mind until every one of them is released.  It is interesting that the expression   Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh – “כל ישראל עֲרֵבִים זה בזה” All Jews are responsible for one another– is a principle of Judaism. The origin of this sentiment is our responsibility for the sins of our fellows. But today, the understanding is different in that we cannot ignore those of our citizens who are in dire straits. In the aftermath of October 7th when hundreds were kidnapped, and our government seemed to be absent, the citizens took upon itself the responsibility of looking after one another. There seemed to be unity at the time. However, with the passage of so much time, there is the risk of our losing our moral compass when the captivity has become normalized enough for people to start arguing whether their salvation is our top priority. We have to become careful and not fall into the usual state of sinat hinam (hatred for the sake of hatred). Our country is fractured and there are no easy answers. Somehow or another we have to balance our love and responsibility for the Jewish people — ahavat Yisrael–with that of responsibility and love for all of humankind– ahavat ha’briyot. Balancing is not an easy task—and many people who try to do so, find themselves in the line of fire. Until we find our way out of the morass that we are in, we will become more and more isolated from the rest of the world. Would that our leaders find a way to resolve this mess .

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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