Isolation to Reintegration: Tazria-Metzora Is More Modern Than We Think

I really hoped I could open the Torah portion this week and not find a connection to COVID-19, the Stay-at-Home orders, or another opportunity to extol the virtues of virtual community. But of course, it’s never a surprise when life imitates art, or in this case, Torah. The double portion of Tazria-Metzora this week is the biblical text of contagion, isolation, and quarantine.

In the book of Leviticus, the Priest served as the chief dermatologist, epidemiologist, immunologist, and healer of the people.  He would diagnose a mysterious affliction on the skin or proscribe the necessary rituals when individuals came in contact with the natural life transitions of sex, childbirth, illness or death, rendering a person ritually impure.

These rituals reflect an important dialectic of the “I” and the “we” of the people.  Every person had to look out for him or herself, carefully scrutinizing bodily changes and when necessary, go to the Priest to assess the situation.  The community would then have to recognize such occurrences were part of society.

Tzara’at was a scaly affection that could occur on skin, clothing, and even in the stones of a house, and was highly contagious. The metzorah was in a temporary state of ritual impurity, a statement of fitness for ritual participation, requiring separation from the community until the illness had abated, and an offering made to rejoin the community. The illness was understood as a spiritual ailment not a medical one, nor was it deserving of moral condemnation.

The text is silent on the “why” of the fungus, but its inclusion in the Torah normalizes it. Whatever the cause of a person’s affliction and subsequent isolation or quarantine, it could happen to anyone, and not only was the status of infection impermanent, but, at least according to the text, it was not a terminal illness.

Nonetheless, a person afflicted with tzaraat had to proclaim him or herself infected. The person had to rend their clothes, uncover the head, cover the mouth, and call out, “tameh, tameh” – “impure, impure.” The person was considered impure as long as the disease prevailed and needed to dwell apart from the community (Lev. 13:45-6).

Embedded in these verses is a communal imperative to care for others. According to the Talmud, one calls out their infected status not only to warn others of the contagion, but also to elicit compassion and prayers on one’s behalf (BT Moed Katan 5a). It is the responsibility of the affected person to isolate, ask for help, social-distance, and it is the responsibility of the community to offer the support, prayer, and ultimately whatever assistance was possible. No one should be isolated more than necessary – for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community.

Whatever the cause of the separation from community, it was the Priest who would tend to the individual and help determine when they could return.  It would seem that that was an easier task than the moment in which we find ourselves, asking our medical experts when our own lives might yet return to any sense of communal “normalcy,” asking how we might “phase in” our gatherings in schools, sporting events, and houses of worship.

In the ongoing quest to understand the intersection of the “I” and “we” in communal life, these texts remind us how life flows freely in between the two.  How we take care of one impacts the other. In the last week as several Governors have decided to “re-open” parts of their economy, and as Americans protested ongoing closures and shut-down orders, declaring “enough already” to our isolating and social-distancing, I couldn’t help but think about the need for our leaders to embody the example of the Priests of old. Tradition values the return of individuals to community, but only after the proscribed rituals and expectations are completed, and there is some assurance that the reintegration into community would not endanger anyone further.

The imposed isolation of this pandemic is meant to care for the infected as best we can and protect others from the devastating impact of this illness that does not yet have a vaccine or obvious treatment that will stop the virus from taking more lives.

Whenever the reintegration into life as we knew it happens, it will not be simple, and it will not return us to the past before COVID-19 upended our lives. We are all metzora these days, and in our isolation, we are responsible to flatten the curve of the virus, to care for one another and humanity by not being reckless or callous in how we think of the nearly 830,000 victims of this illness in the United States. Let us imagine that all of our efforts to end this pandemic are akin literally and figuratively, to the Talmudic story of the messiah sitting among the lepers untying and replacing their bandages one by one (BT Sanhedrin 98a).

Each of us must do our part to end the spread of this pandemic. Separation now, we hope, will lead to reintegration later. It may not appear that all of our efforts are making an impact, but our medical professionals – the priests of old – must be able to make the same determinations as to the contagion and the reintegration of the community as their ancient ancestors. We will be the beneficiaries of their wisdom and care.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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