Surely we have reached a moment in the Torah cycle where you’d probably rather my weekly message talked about BREXIT or Cabinet meetings rather than Leviticus details. Tazria, this week’s portion, talks a great deal about bodily fluids and infections. Indeed we read of skin complaints in minutiae and also about the laws of family purity as the verses on menstrual impurity are euphemistically called.
The description of the scaly skin complaint, which was probably leprosy, insists on immediate isolation and exile. It is no wonder that the anthropologist Mary Douglas named her book about Leviticus Purity and Danger (1961). It is very physical, this section of Leviticus. And to that end, these verses are a rather marvelous antidote to global politics and the abstract terms we are mired in just now. How we treat each other in illness and in trouble is the core of how we live in community. The Biblical community were terrified, even repulsed by illness, discharge, infection and human messiness. Chapter 14, which we will read, amplifies the isolation; The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them.
Skin disease was always stigmatising. Moses comments on his sister’s skin condition in the Book of Numbers. “Don’t let her be like one half dead coming out of the womb . . .” (Numbers 12:12).
This parasha is concerned with the impurity of such ailments and the way the community must respond to them. It is only after elaborate checking, cleaning and rituals that they are allowed back into camp.
Thankfully, we have moved on.
It was not till much later when the Talmudic rabbis reinforced the importance of care and connection for someone ill, and visiting the sick “bikur cholim” becomes a form of “walking in God’s ways” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a). Centuries later we challenge the idea of blame and guilt that is attached to illness. The messiness, literal and otherwise, that accompanies illness of all kinds is understood to be an essential and unavoidable fact of life. No one’s fault.
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