This week we will be reading from the double portion of Tazria-Metzorah. These are two of the most challenging portions of the year because of their focus on skin ailments, tzara’at, along with their diagnosis by the priests and the rituals for purification. One might argue that only a dermatologist could love certain sections of these Torah portions.
Rather than get into the specifics of tzara’at, which is often times mistranslated as ‘leprosy’; perhaps the more interesting conversation has to do with ritual defilement and purification. In older translations when one is in a state of ritual impurity, they were described as being ‘unclean.’ Only through purification rituals could they become ‘clean’ again. However, the problem with these translations is that they are placing values on a persons’ ritual status. This is why more modern translations prefer purity to cleanliness. To be in a state of ritual purity is not a permanent state, and if one becomes ritually impure, either through deliberate action, by accident, or by other means, it does not mean they have done anything wrong. It just means that they are at a stage whereby they would need to go through a process to become ritually pure again.
I know this is a bit of an esoteric conversation so far, but there is value to this exploration of the text. In our world today, especially during the pandemic, we have all created our rituals of purification, if you will. For example, after returning from the outside world, many of us immediately remove our shoes and our masks. We wash our hands and we even change our clothes, as if to attempt to remove the fear of the pandemic in a very physical way, so as not to bring it into our personal sacred spaces, namely, our homes.
It is these little rituals that we use not only to physically try to protect ourselves, but also to spiritually protect ourselves as well. In this way, there are modern echoes to when someone came into contact with tzara’at and would have to remove themselves from the community for a proscribed amount of time before ritually purifying themselves again in order to be able to return.
It is curious that the whole concept of defilement and purification has once again taken on such a profound meaning. Of course the prayer is that one day, speedily and soon, we’ll be able to leave this all behind. In the meantime, we will fastidiously keep up the rituals of cleanliness and purification in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in these challenging times.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff