No one left outside the tent
When Rabbis have to give sermons focusing on this week’s parsha, Tazria/Metzora, most have more than a little difficulty finding a way to make it relevant to our lives. After all, how is learning about the ancient Israelite priests’ use of archaic rituals to deal with skin afflictions relevant to us today?
I must admit that I always used to hope that it might not fall to me to have to give the parsha Tazria/Metzora sermon or teaching. That is, until the onset of COVID-19 last year and all the adjustments we have had to make in order to live with the pandemic.
Tazria/ Metzora gives us insights into the ancient Israelite process of purification from skin diseases. The priest was called upon to examine the tzara’at—skin affliction. If the rash was not severe, the individual would be permitted to return to the camp. However, if the disease appeared to be serious, the person would be considered impure and would need to remove themselves from the encampment—go into quarantine—until the rash disappeared.
Once the rash disappeared, the priest would be called upon to reexamine the person and begin a process of purification. A sacrifice was offered and then the person was allowed back into the encampment, but not to their home. Seven days later, another sacrifice was offered. The afflicted person was declared healed only when this process had been completed.
What we learn from this parsha and the process of purification is not cutting-edge medical and scientific facts about disease control, or insights that the ancients may have had into the ways a plague or pandemic spreads, but rather the care with which the Torah describes the relationship between the priest and the afflicted person. It is a reminder to us that we should not lose sight of our humanity or the individual as we try to make sense of the current pandemic.
There are many places in our tradition where the value of a person’s life is equated with an entire world. In an even more powerful articulation of the individual’s importance, it is stated: ‘So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted’(Numbers 12:15). A midrashic interpretation of this verse further states that ‘God as well as the people waited for Miriam to reenter the camp’ (Mekhilta d’ Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallah).
Pandemics and plagues are traumatic times for us. Civilisations and societies have been destroyed but also transformed as result of major pandemics. For example, we have learned how the ferocity of the bubonic plague helped end the feudal hierarchy in England, allowing for social mobility that was previously impossible. The speed of the Arab conquests of the Middle East and Iran was probably facilitated by the weakness of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires owing to their having been ravaged by a form of the bubonic plague for a century.
What is lost to us is the personal stories of all those who died. Having lived in the United States for so many years, Michal and I knew people who have died from COVID-19 and we know others who were in a critical condition for many months. The emotional toll of not being able to be close—in physical contact—has been huge and sometimes devastating.
It is in times like these that the blessing of our tradition may flow to us if we truly allow ourselves to be guided by its wisdom. It is written in the Mishnah that ‘anyone who sustains one soul … [it is] as if he sustained an entire world’ (Sanhedrin 4:5).
Before Covid I had never taken the time to focus on this parsha and see that it is in fact teaching us something very profound. In these times it is too easy to become insensitive to the loss of income and livelihood that so many people are experiencing, not to mention the loss of life. It is now, in these times, that we have to remember a core teaching of our tradition: that every individual is a precious, unique manifestation of the Divinity. Just as God waited for Miriam to reenter the camp, and the people Israel waited for Miriam to reenter the camp, we need to do everything possible to extend our compassion, to see the face of the other and to endeavour to respond reciprocally.
Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025
p: 02 9389 6444
Shabbat, January 30, 2021
17th of Sh’vat, 5781
Friday, January 29 2021 7:44PM
Motzei Shabbat 8:20PM
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