This week we will be reading from the double portion of Tazria. This is one of the most
challenging portions of the year because of its focus on skin ailments, tzara’at, along with its
diagnosis by the priests and the rituals for purification. One might argue that only a
dermatologist could love certain sections of this Torah portion.
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 and as we come out of the pandemic,
we have all created our rituals of purification, if you will. For example, after returning from the
outside world, many of us continue to 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 will also be very interesting to see what vestiges of these rituals we will choose to maintain
moving forward. Following the Great Depression, there are stories of that generation
continuing to hide money in their mattresses. They also kept everything from jars to extra food.
I suspect, we too will be the same for years to come. Experiences such as a global pandemic
leave marks on us that we are only just beginning to recognize, and that will take years if not
decades to unpack. All that being said, this is why having rituals is in some ways, so very
important to us being able to process what we have experienced and to provide comfort to us
even as we move forward.
Therefore, it is in 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