Tazria Metzora –  Coping with Plague and Quarantine with Compassion

“We know how to do this.”

Once again, a portion that felt obscure and distant takes on a very different feel this year. Tazria Metzora, a double portion full of detailed descriptions of skin afflictions, emissions and a variety of maladies, is usually not on the list of portions you looked forward to – it was obscure, full of vivid, cringe-worthy descriptions and seemingly irrelevant.  But this year feels different.

The portion comes to life with force and relevance.  We read it with new eyes and hearts. The description of a mysterious and dangerous ailment hits home.  The fact that it afflicts people randomly with no rhyme or reason mirrors our current experience. The Torah’s response of quarantine, in order to contain the disease, and potentially prevent spread is what we are living.  We are closed in – just as our ancestors were as they faced a scary and unpredictable outbreak. Tazria Metzora is right now.

Listen to a detail of the quarantine: in one of the sentences hu badad yoshev, michutz la’machane (13:46) -He/She shall dwell alone, outside the camp. The text pulls us to the word alone – badad.  It could have simply said that the person dwells outside the camp – but it emphasizes the existential experience of facing this alone. This year we understand the emotions of badad in ways we never have before. Whereas previously we may have understood the circumstances of the afflicted being alone from a distance – now their experience mirrors ours.  We understand the feelings of fear, uncertainty, longing, confusion, grief and anxiety they might have felt. As we place ourselves in their shoes, we find insight to our own situation.

Mindfulness pioneer Jack Kornfield started his explanation of how to deal with the coronavirus by acknowledging the feeling of badad – whatever that might mean for you.  Using the experience of our ancestors quarantined outside the camp, let’s allow our understanding to their experience to speak to us.  Picture our ancestor sitting outside the camp – What is the experience like for him or her?

As we continue to listen, we may hear other thoughts weave into descriptions of fear and anxiety.  We might hear words of reassurance and perspective: “Others have gone through this and been okay.” “We know how to do this.” Because our experience mirrors theirs, the more we reflect on what they might have felt, the more we can give voice to our own truths.

As we learn to name our experience and sit with it, we often find perspective we didn’t see before. We find contrasting reactions co-existing: gratitude mingles with grief, inspiration sits together with exasperation, joy interweaves with sorrow.  Kornfield teaches to take a pause as we are experiencing the most difficult of emotions.  It won’t make it go away – but it will allow us to hold it with a different perspective.  He teaches that as we name the emotion, we see the role it might play – our sadness or upset is trying to protect us, and we can respond to the emotion, “I’m okay.”  It helps us reset.  Parshat Tazria Metzora is a powerful tool in that it allows our minds and imaginations to bring our ancestors from the past to the present and help us understand and respond to our current reality.

As we go back to that person quarantined alone outside the camp, let’s reflect on the message they received from their community.  What was that message?  It was loud and clear: You matter.

The camp waited for them before they moved on.

The Priest – the most prestigious position in the community came out to check on them.  They were not a number or a statistic.  They were a sacred soul, whose life mattered. This is the foundation of the later teaching in the Mishna that when one person dies, an entire universe perishes, and if one person’s life is saved, an entire universe is saved. Knowledge of his or her unique, individual worth sustained each person in their isolation. One of the lessons I pray continues in the aftermath of this pandemic is that the world united to save lives – for each life matters!

Throughout the portion, there is an ethic of compassion that speaks to this moment.   There is a word repeated over and over again in this portion and it is ra’ah – resh, aleph, hey – to see. Often it is in the context of the priest going out to the afflicted person to examine the disease. While not a health care worker, the Priest showed up and did all that could be done to return the person suffering to loved ones and community. The priest saw not just the disease – but the entire person.  Just like the doctors, nurses and front-line responders risking their lives to care for those in need, the Priest risked exposure to a contagious condition to care.  This portion teaches us to emulate the priest – not by exposing ourselves to those who are ill – but by contributing any way we can in a way appropriate to our skills.  For the scientists – and there are several in our community doing amazing work – stay in your lab.  For the writers and poets – explore words that will help us through these moments.  For the quilters – make facemasks. Everyone has something they can do: younger people can pick up groceries or supplies, older or at risk people can allow others to do that for you, write notes, give calls, support crucial causes.  This week we are all like the Priest going out to bring healing.

One more detail from the portion teaches important lessons, and that is what happens when a person re-enters the camp after the affliction is gone:  – they stay outside their tent for 7 days. (14:9) Why?  Shouldn’t they just get back to their home?  Maybe starting anew takes time and goes in stages.  Or maybe the person stays outside so that the whole community sees them.  When the person is outside their tent – everyone walks by and has to interact.  The person may not have food, so the community needs to feed them. The story demands that everyone see the person.

Then what happens?  We read that the person washes their clothes and bathes in water. (15:8) We have learned a lot about washing hands and clothes – and this may have been about hygiene and preventing spread to others.  But there is more to it – think about the symbolism of water and bathing – that which cleanses and symbolizes new beginnings and creation.  The heavens were surrounded by water in the initial creation story.  The commentary in the Etz Chayim Torah reads: “This was not simply to cleanse oneself. It symbolized rebirth and re-creation – new life and new identity.”

That is the spiritual work this moment calls upon us to do.  A piece of our current experience that we are beginning to explore is the potential for new beginnings. Let’s start talking and thinking about what new, different and better can emerge:

Let’s continue to embrace time with family.

Let’s continue to experience the power of being alone, and its potential to open doors to life’s mysteries and meanings. Building on Jack Kornfield’s words: “Moments of presence or contentment that come unbidden because we have been quiet.”

Let’s hold onto our newfound understanding of our interconnectedness and let that truth define future attitudes.

Let’s reset so we will be ready to save more lives if we experience anything like this in the future.  We weren’t ready and need to be moving forward.

Let’s allow the dissipation of pollution to connect us to the earth and reset our behaviors so that our responsibility to safeguard our environment and appreciate the marvel of nature continues.

While never losing sight of suffering and estrangement, let’s also be keenly  aware of the wisdom, empathy, solidarity and awareness that can emerge. The wisdom of our past prepares us for this moment. It sits with us and can help us.  We realize that like our ancestors, we too will emerge from this isolation and distancing and soon share our camp together – recommitted to relationship, rebuilding and reuniting.   May that day come soon.