This week’s Torah portion hits me on a rather emotional level. At first glance, it’s a double portion focused on impurity – from that of childbirth or from a peculiar disease known as tzara’at, which is a scaly affliction that affects both people and inanimate objects, even houses. On a superficial level, this reading is about exclusion, about determining who has to be quarantined away from the rest of the camp. Today, though, as we’re starting to discuss how we might return to physical activities like services and educational sessions in the Temple, it reads very differently.
Yes, I appreciate that in order to relate this week’s reading to our current predicament that I have to rather gloss over the concept of impurity from childbirth. To do so is not to ignore that part of Torah, which I believe demonstrates once again Torah’s concern about uncontrolled blood loss. The difference between the blood impurity of childbirth and the impurity of the carrier of tzara’at, though, is important – the mother can only transfer impurity where the carrier of tzara’at can transfer the disease itself. It is almost as if Torah is talking about levels of risk of transference, and my focus this evening is on that second level.
Last year, when I spoke on Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke of the loneliness of enforced isolation, an isolation that we were all still somewhat in shock about at the time. I spoke of the fact that Torah doesn’t inform us what to do while in isolation, it just tells us when to isolate and when one can come out of isolation. Torah’s interest is not on individual people but on the entire people, on the camp, so what a person does in that time of isolation is essentially up to them. Last year, I spoke of the three stages of isolation – shock, acceptance, and return. Shock is what we experienced in March of 2020 when we suddenly had to all isolate, acceptance is what happened in the months after, and now, as more and more members of our community are vaccinated, we start to consider return.
I recently read someone asking why God chose to use just one group of people – the Levites – are priests… why create an exclusive club and thus a hierarchy between the people? Many people, including early Reform Jews, abhor the concept of priesthood for its notion of intermediaries between God and the people, for the idea that some people could be more elevated for special service than others. I don’t see that. To understand why the priests were needed, we have to go back to preparations for the Revelation at Sinai, in Exodus 19. There, God informs Moses to put up a boundary around the mountain so that people do not touch it and die. In the following chapter, the people are so terrified of God’s awesomeness that they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, saying, “Do not have God speak with us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Later in Torah, in the portion of Shemini that we read only recently, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer an improper fire and are immediately killed. Since God is beyond the human realm, the closer one comes to God, the closer one comes to danger on a human level, in other words, closeness to God risks human death. A rather trite comparison might be electricity – it is awesome, powerful, it illuminates our lives, but if we touch it, we risk death. God’s realm is not the human realm, so to draw close to God means to risk losing contact with the human realm. So, the priests are not there for control, they are the safety specialists – they’re the people whose specific task it is to allow the people to draw as close as possible to God without getting dangerously close.
I understand, of course, that Rabbis aren’t priests, especially now there is no Tabernacle or Temple to which people might regularly bring sacrifices. Nonetheless, as our community starts to explore how we might slowly return to activities in the same physical space, I find much sympathy with the priests in this week’s reading, especially when it comes not to blood impurity but to disease impurity. The priest is responsible for balancing sacred concerns with physical concerns. They want to bring the person back into the camp but they have to be absolutely certain that there is no risk of contamination of the larger community. This is not an issue of control or hierarchy, it’s an issue of public safety. The priest, who normally protects the individual from sacred danger by drawing too close to God, suddenly finds themselves protecting the entire community from physical danger. Their sphere of responsibility has widened enormously, in a similar way to how the High Priest atones on behalf of the entire people on Yom Kippur. I wonder – and I realize I may very well be projecting onto the text here – if the priest is afraid of the harm that might come from their decision if their assessment is wrong in any way? Perhaps that’s why the text goes into so much detail as to how to make the observation – so that the priest is guided through that awesome and terrifying process. In a similar way, I guess, that’s why Temple Beth Shalom has a Reopening Committee that is addressing how we all might return physically – so that the responsibility does not fall on one person.
The reality is, though, that I am afraid. I’m afraid of us coming back together and people not being able to sing in services or hug one another for a long time, resulting in them being really excited to return and then actually really disappointed at how services feel for a while. I’m afraid that we’ll take precautions but still become a source for someone in our community getting sick, or worse. And at the same time, I’m afraid for something that Torah does not concern itself with – with the feelings of extended isolation and loneliness of members of our community. What the priests have in this week’s reading, and what I feel at the moment, is a sense of awesome responsibility, in terms of awe being that reverential feeling of fear and wonderment.
That feeling of awesome responsibility cannot limit action, though. At some point, the priest has to make the call as to whether or not the person must stay physically away from others or whether they can return. That is where I believe this week’s reading is incredibly sensitive, because after the assessment and the decision to let someone return, Tazria-Metzorah provides a ritual for returning to the community. I’ve started to wonder about this. When we return to Shabbat services, what will our ritual be? It needs to be more than a Shehecheyanu. We’ve become so used to ritualizing behavior around the wearing of masks or social distancing that we need to be sure that that’s not our only rituals around prayer. In this week’s reading, (specifically Lev. 14), the person returning brings two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool and some hyssop. An extraordinary ritual follows that includes presentation of a guilt offering and a sin offering on behalf of the person returning to communal life. Torah specifically then says, “vichiper alav hakohen v’taheir – “thus shall the priest atone for him and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20). Would we, as we consider returning to the community, need to bring a guilt offering, a sin offering? Do we need atonement?
Maybe there is a place for a guilt offering and a sin offering, for the times when we did not socially distance, for tolerating a society so unequal that when the pandemic raged through this country it was devastating for certain communities and not those we lived in. Maybe we would need something in place of a guilt offering and a sin offering for the times when we secretly did not keep best practice, did not stay socially distanced, either for us individually or, as on Yom Kippur, on behalf of all those in our community who erred in this way. And what would it mean for atonement to be made for us? The root of the Hebrew word atonement is return, return to the right way, return to connecting with God, return away from previous modes of behavior. A ritual of return is surely necessary. Perhaps it would include washing of hands as we walked into the Sanctuary, a ritual of cleanliness but also a ritual of washing off the past. I have yet to create the ritual, but our Torah reading this week definitely demonstrates what I profoundly feel at the moment - the importance of some kind of ritual of return.
Once again, during the pandemic, the Book of Leviticus has revealed itself not to be a dry list of hierarchical responsibilities and arcana rituals but, rather, a text that is extremely sensitive to balancing the physical and spiritual needs of the community in the face of contamination and even death. What it shows us is that the return to the physical community must be done very carefully, in measured ways, and accompanied by some kind of ritual of return that allows us to express physically what we are feeling as we slowly transition from isolation to community.
The first phase is isolation – shock – was sudden and we were unprepared. The second stage – isolation – was extended and difficult. Now we slowly and carefully approach the third stage – return. So, may our return to physical community be loving, be deliberate, may it acknowledge and help work through our differing fears, and may it ultimately help us return to God