Tazria-Metzora and the Mysterious Connector — From Cult to COVID

The double-portion of Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) pulls us out of the orderly purity of the pristine, glimmering golden edifice of the tabernacle, and into the inherent messiness of what it means to be human, both at its best and worst: childbirth, sickness, and so on.

In Tazria-Metzora, we read of people coping with hardship in the most vulnerable and intimate places: in their homes, in their bodies. The Torah does not shy away from up-close descriptions of festering physical blemishes and bodily emissions. As we read the very detailed Biblical prescriptions regarding the treatment of lepers, we ought to bear in mind that the quarantining process the Torah prescribes is actually not about stigmatizing or isolating people, but rather, its ultimate goal is creating a cohesive communal structure enabling the afflicted to rejoin the community.
Most of all, Tazria-Metzora offers us a thoroughly modern template for how we as a people are empowered to be part of an ongoing network of help.

Most intriguing is the recurring line of [1]“והוּבא אל הכוהן”:
when one is afflicted with tzara’at, he should be brought to the Kohen.[2]  But, by whom will the person afflicted with leprosy be brought to the Kohen?

Who is this unsung, unnamed hero who takes the first crucial step in the healing process? Why does s/he remain anonymous in the context of an otherwise fairly specific Biblical description of cultic rites, worship, and purification? Where, when, and how does this unnamed person bring the leper to the Kohen?

As in real life, the person who connects those in pain and/or crisis to the resources and/or personnel who will help heal them may never be credited in a substantial or public way. But without the vital intervention of this intermediary, recovery would be impossible. This helper or  “first responder” is someone intervening  behind the scenes—the rest of society may never know how, where, or when this intervention happened; the whole process is shrouded in secrecy – a discreet secrecy which, in fact, may help to preserve the dignity of the person being helped.

And indeed, even in our giving to others, sometimes it is precisely this secrecy we value most: out of Maimonides 8 ascending levels of charity, the 3rd and 2nd highest involve an anonymous donor. We greatly value anonymous mitzvot—whether anonymous monetary giving, or volunteer work, such as those individuals who nobly and secretly ritually prepare deceased bodies as part of a chevra Kadisha.

This section of Leviticus outlines three distinct roles:

1) the afflicted, 2) the “connector”, and 3) the healer, or the “resource.” These three categories are not fixed, permanent statuses, but distinct, fluid roles which each of us will come to inhabit at different points in our lives

Jewish communal leaders often find themselves moving tween these fluid roles. Sometimes we will act as “the connector,” directing people in material, physical, and/or spiritual need to the appropriate resources.  Other times, we will have the zekhut to create those resources and become the conduit for healing.

And certainly, at other times, we ourselves will experience hardships and difficulties which will cause us to look for someone to guide us toward a source of strength and support in our own, personal struggles.

Every human being, at one time or another finds him/herself wandering and in need of guidance, and, for this reason, the Torah uses the repeating language in Tazria of “כי יהיה”: not “if” someone will be afflicted, but “when.”[3]

Unlike performing animal sacrifices, for which the high priest is given explicit and precise instructions, the treatment of people depends very much on the personal assessment of the Kohen.  As in all matters pertaining to people, the course of healing and/or recovery requires the caring, sensitive intuition of an informed individual. Even with regard to how long the afflicted should be quarantined, there is a certain degree of ambiguity as to how to treat the afflicted person. This is largely a human decision to be determined by feeling out the particulars of the specific human case.

This year, during our current global pandemic, one cannot help but think of this process without noticing the parallels to our own moment. We are all mindful of the heroism, not only of the medical personnel working in our hospitals, but also of the “connectors” – the ambulance drivers, volunteers, and all of the other essential workers whose names we may never learn,  who, by keeping an eye out for us, and making sure we get the help we need may very well save our lives.

Right now, we are all living in some form of quarantine and, just as in the case of our ancestors, all of the drastic (and crucial) safety precautions we take function in the service of our ultimate goal – rejoining the in-person community once again.  Just as the priest’s assessment was very much an art and perhaps less a science, we are learning how even modern medicine relies  on judgement and intuition in combination with scientific data, and we pray that our medical professionals, scientists, and political leaders help us on a path that will first and foremost preserve life and ultimately bring us back to a safe, healthy, restored community.

The parallels between our double Torah portion and the contemporary situation  of Jewish worship are especially noteworthy. Just as the priests were called upon both to preside over the cult, attending to the minutia of animal sacrifice, as well as to cure the afflicted, so too are contemporary communal leaders faced with the joint duties both of facilitating the avodah, the ritual of the synagogue, while at the same time, being a readily available source of comfort and counseling to congregants.  In the course of synagogue life, we can often become fixated on the particulars of worship, relegating our ethical and interpersonal work to a subordinate level. But we must ask ourselves: what is the point of the minutia of worship without a clear agreement on how we respond to crisis and treat those in pain? In our own communities, we may be absolutely uncompromising about certain ritual practices and traditions, even allowing these measures to “define” our community vs. others, but how do we decide as leaders and as a community what we do for other people in the hardest moments and in the most trying circumstances?

Tazria-Metzora offers an answer that begins with the most esteemed servants of G-d in the Biblical community—the priests. Where are the priests when they are not engaged in cultic rite in the sanctuary? They are doing the messy work of spiritual healing in its rawest moments – they are out among the people.

It is they, the priests, in collaboration with the unnamed “connector,” who must encounter the afflictions of the body and of the home first-hand. Notably in our tradition, the Israelites who held the most prestigious of sacred offices did not live in towers of ivory or in palaces of gold, but in the designated Cities of Refuge, among the unintentional murders —  among those whose isolation and suffering had been imposed upon them by circumstances beyond their control.

This is not a punishment, but a divine privilege—to live among people whose life circumstances require the presence of caring, involved community for positive change. As we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b), none other than the Messiah will be found sitting among the poor lepers, and will be called “the leper scholar.” The one who will bring the ultimate healing and redemption stands in solidarity with those who have been driven into isolation.

Often the most daunting moments of encounter with messiness and raw suffering are also the most spiritually fulfilling. We authentically connect with each other and our own selves when we are forced to encounter our vulnerabilities, both spiritual and physical and encounter our complete selves, challenges and all.

As a rabbi, I am blessed with a vocation which regularly immerses me in such moments and conversations. I am reminded of the power of community – the power of growing together with others and seeing each other through many seasons and circumstances.

It is particularly striking that the phrase, “and it should be brought to Aaron or one of his sons, the priests,” specifies Aaron’s immediate family—that very  family who, in the previous week’s portion, Shemini, had experienced unspeakable trauma, with the untimely and tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons. A thoughtful reader may ask:  from where can Aaron’s family be expected to draw strength in the wake of their own unthinkable loss, in the rawness of their sorrow?

To borrow a term coined by Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen, Aaron and his sons are “wounded healers.” Aaron and his surviving sons are uniquely qualified to draw upon their past hurt to better serve and care for others.

Tragedy can crush the human spirit, but it can also broaden the human capacity to understand sorrow and feel compassion. Clearly, the Torah expected—even demanded—from Aaron and his sons the latter reaction—and they rose to the occasion.

There is a lesson to be learned from this all of us right now, as we navigate this very heavy moment. We are all, in a sense, “wounded healers.” Each of us carries in our souls, memories of sadness, tragedy, and suffering, and many of us, unfortunately,  have had more immediate tastes of these spiritual and psychological traumas. While these wounds are painful and enduring, they also provide potential wellsprings of understanding, kindness and compassion that may enable us to see ourselves as part of this never-ending cycle of hurt and healing to recognize  that  our roles in this web of help are constantly changing.

At its heart, Tazria-Metzora is a thoroughly humanist portion, placing the responsibility of human healing in human hands.  The take-away from this eternal cycle of divinely human help is that G-d’s divine work—including and especially the dirty work—must be completed by humans.

In the Midrash Tanchuma, on an earlier part of this Torah double-portion that concerns circumcising male babies on their eighth day of life (Lev. 12:3), the evil [Roman governor] Tornus Rofos asks Rabbi Akiva, ‘Whose deeds are greater – God’s or man’s?’ ultimately challenging our sage to defend the practice of circumcision. R’ Akiva responds, “Why do you not ask the same question concerning the umbilical cord, which remains attached to him and which his mother must cut?  In response to your question – the reason why he does not emerge already circumcised is because God gave Israel the commandments in order that they would be purified by performing them.”

The world is made in need of tikkun — repair. And this tikkun is a distinctly human, group effort. The baby cannot circumcise himself; the leper needs a healer. The world calls upon us to step up to the task when we see suffering and injustice. As we each navigate this ongoing cycle of help, it is my prayer that we find support when we need it, strength and wisdom to heal, and divine meaning in every step of our journey.

[1] Lev. 13:2, 13:9,  also  in 13:49: “it shall be shown to the Kohen,” also in passive voice, and also in 14:2.

[2] v’huva: written in the passive tense. The Sifra renders the phrase as follows, “And he shall be brought to the kohen—that he does not wait” (whereas the in the subsequent discussion of the zav and zava a waiting period of seven days in prescribed)

[3] For more on this point, see https://jewschool.com/2010/04/22289/the-vort-tazria-metzora-not-a-question-of-if-but-when/


The above is a modified version of the dvar Torah the author delivered this past Shabbat, 04.25.20, at Congregation Beth El of Bucks County.

About the Author
Raysh Weiss, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County, PA. (Author photo by Ann Silver)
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