This week there is a double portion of Torah. That is, we read two portions for the same Shabbat. It happens other times in the year, so we can end up on Simchat Torah in the fall having gotten to the very end, ready to start over.
This is the Shabbat of Tazria/ Metzora. The two portions deal with similar themes – the changing status of ritual impurity; how one lands in the “impure” status, and how to return to the default state of ritual fitness. We’re reading the book of Leviticus now, remember, and it’s all about discernment and distinguishing lines between this and that. Between kosher and not kosher. Between sacred and ordinary. And in Tazria/Metzora, it’s about the line between life and death.
That was a line very hard to discern and easy to cross, if you think about it. This was a people in the wilderness, in the middle of enduring a treacherous journey between Egypt and their promised land. They’d witnessed some astounding events, not the least of which were massive populations of both cattle and people dropping dead, the infections and infestations of lice, vermin, locusts, boils, etc. Now, in the wilderness, water and food were precious and rationed. Life itself was dependent on God’s help, and any moment could be one’s last.
No wonder they were concerned about life and death.
Now, Tazria/Metzora speaks to skin disease, the priests’ roles in diagnosing ritually impure conditions of bodies, clothes and buildings, and then how one re-purifies these things. Things like childbirth, bodily emissions, skin inflammations, etc. all render someone/thing ritually impure. Not impure at the core, like being a bad, horrible person. This is a ritual impurity, rendering someone ineligible for taking part in the ritual life of the community, for the moment. Usually, once your time apart is complete, you’ve done laundry, and had a bath, poof! You’re back taking part in your ritual life again.
The Torah is concerned about blurring the lines between life and death; contamination can occur when those lines are crossed indiscriminately. Granted, medical and scientific knowledge may have clarified some of the assumptions in the Torah, like “leprosy” and other diseases. But the idea that one can be contaminated by getting too close to something that can harm you is still around.
We keep our kids away from bad influences. We don’t hang around toxic individuals, those who can drag us down into intolerance, disrespect, hatred. We can be infected by those who inflict harm, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. We make a space between us and them, to keep us on the life-affirming side of the line. When we do come into contact with people like that, we need to re-draw that line with heavier ink. We need to cleanse ourselves, our minds and souls, so that the “infection” doesn’t spread, and we can rejoin the life-affirming community around us.
There has been a lot written lately about child abuse charges within the Orthodox community, specifically, from within Yeshiva University and its faculty. (see forward.com) Certainly, few communities have been spared this pain. Universities, seminaries, and more. As with other faith communities, the pain is multiplied by the efforts to cover up for those who cause it, like the Catholic church. It’s heart-crushing to imagine (primarily) men of faith engaging in such soul-crushing behavior….and then have it covered up. Torah tells us we can’t cover up this kind of infection; we must take this seriously, remove the infected ones from our midst; they are rendered impure and cannot take part in the life of the community. In my opinion, this kind of infestation cannot be rendered pure again, and attention must instead be paid to restoring the victims to wholeness if possible. They were never impure, though their suffering surely brought them to the line between life and death.
We are surrounded by things that can bring death to our spirit, if not our bodies, and the Torah reminds us that to appreciate the life-giving sources around us, we need to protect them. Keep them separated from destructive pressures. Though the language of Tazria/Metzora is odd and gross, foreign and easily dismissed, the value behind it is of keeping ourselves in a life-affirming place, and keeping ourselves, our bodies, and our surroundings free from that which can drag us over the line.
That’s anything but easily dismissed.