The Torah portion this week is Tazria-Metzora, a famously obscure section of Leviticus that describes in detail all manner of skin afflictions and the ritual remedies that are prescribed for them. These chapters are joked about as the “booby prize” for unfortunate Bar and Bat Mitzvah students whose birthday happens to fall this time of year.
But of course these portions bear deeper meanings, and never more so than at this moment. Our ancestors considered these skin conditions, known as tzara’at, to be contagious. This was not according to our modern understanding of medical contagion, but rather it was understood to be a form of spiritual contagion, known as טָמֵא tamei. If a community member was tamei (a term very difficult to translate) their presence could render the community ritually impure. Despite the vastly different understanding of disease between that era and our own, the remedies prescribed in the Torah for these ancient maladies are similar to our own – social distancing and quarantine:
“And the person with tzara’at, in whom there is the lesion, their garments shall be torn, their head shall be unshorn, they shall cover themselves down to their upper lip and call out, “Tamei! Tamei!” All the days the tzara’at is upon them, they shall remain tamei. They are tamei; they shall dwell isolated; their dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).
So we see that the person who was contagious had to dwell apart until they had recovered, and if they were out and about they had to alert people to their condition.
A discussion in the Talmud (Moed Katan 5a) draws a beautiful lesson from this Torah passage (and I thank Rabbi Brent Spodek for pointing it out – you can read his teaching here.) The rabbis are discussing why the person with tzara’at must alert people to their approach by calling out “Tamei! Tamei!” Rabbi Abbahu says that it is so that people will keep their distance and protect themselves. That is, the person with tzara’at needs to protect public health by behaving responsibly. But another unnamed rabbi disagrees and says that the afflicted person announces their condition so that people will pray for this person’s recovery and wellbeing. In this understanding, the afflicted person is asking not to be forgotten, despite their isolation, and calls out in order to elicit compassion from others.
In quintessential Talmudic fashion, the solution to this dispute is to accept both answers as relevant. To make its point, the Talmud explains that the repetition of “Tamei! Tamei!” indicates that not one, but two responses are called for from the people hearing this cry: first, that the hearers need to take precautions and protect themselves, and second, that while protecting themselves they must not forget about the person who is isolated, but rather extend their compassion toward this person. In other words, they must remember that they are a community of mutual concern even while they must retain social distancing.
And so it is with us, as we must always keep in mind that we are in this together, even while sheltering apart. And I want to say that I am very heartened by the efforts of so many people, voluntarily constraining and limiting their own behavior in order to protect the health of others, while also constantly seeking ways to remain connected and to offer assistance and support.
This sense of mutuality, of shared fate, is the foundation of a good society. The laws and instructions of the Torah are intended to create such a society, what the Torah calls a גוֹי קָדוֹשׁ goy kadosh, a holy people. The rabbis of the Talmud exemplify this goal when they insist that it is not only possible but desirable to balance the needs of self and other at all times.
We are experiencing a period in American life when that social contract, that sense of shared national community, is unraveling in very distressing and frightening ways. In the midst of this pandemic, may our Jewish community take strength from our central Jewish values, and may the millions and millions of Americans who share those values with us also take heart in our shared longing, intentions and actions to treat one another with care, even at the cost of some of our own comforts.