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Reentry comes in stages

The biblical figures who cannot reenter the camp before undergoing a series of intricate tasks teach the value of a 'slow and steady' return to normalcy
'Miriam Shut Out From The Camp,' by James Tissot, watercolor circa 1896–1902. (Wikipedia)
'Miriam Shut Out From The Camp,' by James Tissot, watercolor circa 1896–1902. (Wikipedia)

The two parshiot of last week and this week are often read together, but they are not the same. They both deal with a person, known as a metzora, who has a skin condition known as tzara’at (often translated as leprosy). While last week’s parsha, Tazria, describes in detail how to identify tzara’at, this week’s parsha, Metzora, talks about how a person who has healed from tzara’at re-enters the community and becomes tahor, pure. This process can offer lessons for us in our own forms of re-entry today.

After a priest (known in Hebrew as a kohen) determines that the tzara’at is healed, the metzora goes through a multi-stage process of purification. The first ritual includes two living pure birds, cedar wood, scarlet wool and eizov (often translated as hyssop). Following this ritual, the person washes his or her clothing, shaves all his or her hair, and bathes in water. Seven days later, the shaving, laundering, and bathing is repeated a second time.  Finally, the person makes a sacrifice of two lambs, fine flour mixed with oil and one log of oil. The blood of one of the lambs and the oil will eventually be put on the thumb of the person’s right hand, the big toe of the right foot, and whatever is left of the oil will be poured on the person’s head.

Such a complicated procedure! In a later generation, the prophet Elisha cured Naaman, commander of the Aramean army, of tzara’at simply by telling him to wash in the Jordan River seven times (see II Kings, chapter 5). So these stages were clearly not required for a physical cure. Rather, the process enabled a person who had been isolated from the community to return with a renewed status. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch states this directly as it relates to the first stage of the purification process: “Re-entry into the social community is quite clearly the idea to which it all must refer” (Hirsch Commentary on the Torah, Leviticus 14:8).

We do not have tzara’at today, but many of us today are exploring what it means to re-enter social life following a time of isolation – whether having been apart due to COVID-19, or any other isolation such as from a physical or mental illness, the loss of a person we love, or a change in professional or marital status.

Re-entry can present social, emotional and health challenges. For example, encountering crowds that used to feel normal, resuming relationships that we have let lapse, or struggling with whether and when to wear a mask may make us feel vulnerable, confused and uncomfortable. As with the metzora, we might find re-entry involves a number of stages.

One step, hair removal, is repeated twice in the metzora’s process. Rav Hirsch (ibid.) suggests that shaving all the hair removes the body of its protection, so that the person is exposed naked to all the influences of the outer world. This vulnerable feeling is familiar to many today. The metzora’s final stage of purification brings them to the entrance of the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash — near the very center of the community. For us too, returning to our community, synagogue and G-d may be the final stage of return.

In truth, our lives are full of comings and goings, retreat and return. This is not a random process. In the book, You Are What You Hate — A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies, Sarah Yehudit Schneider offers a beautiful explanation of the kabbalistic concept of elevating sparks:

We come into the world with only part of our soul inside our body, and part of our soul, the shattered pieces of it, strewn throughout the universe. Hashem leads us, moment by moment, from coordinate A to coordinate B because there are fragments of our self, shattered pieces of our soul, that need to be collected. When we act in a way that accomplishes Hashem’s purpose for that moment, we raise a spark and absorb its light back into our soul. In the process, we become a sliver more enlightened, a drop more whole. (p. 68)

In Kabbalah, light is a metaphor for consciousness. Elevating sparks is a matter of expanding our own consciousness, or in other words, learning lessons. Day by day, we integrate sparks and learn our own soul wisdom. Seen from this perspective, our grandest life work is the reconstruction of ourselves.

Whether we have been dealing with isolation because of health challenges, grief, pandemic concerns, or other reasons, hopefully we’ve also integrated new wisdom through those experiences. Our opportunity is to keep this wisdom — these drops of enlightenment — these elevated sparks — with us, as we return to our social, professional and spiritual communities. We can also recognize and give space to others who may have been struggling and also growing during this time.

The purification of the metzora can teach us to honor this process. We can take it in stages. We can carry with us what we have learned from being apart, and be willing to acknowledge we’ve been changed by the experience.

May we bring the light with us as we re-enter and return.

In loving memory of Sheryl Grossman, z”l

About the Author
Evonne Marzouk loves sharing Jewish wisdom with Jewish teens and women and empowering them to grow into all their gifts. She is the author of the 2019 Jewish novel, The Prophetess.
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