After the contagion
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TorahParshat Metzora

After the contagion

Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

(File photo)
(File photo)

First of all, it’s not leprosy, aka Hansen’s Disease.

Let’s agree that we don’t really know what it was other than “tzara’at” — because whatever it was, it was bad. Very bad. Scary bad. Some sort of contagion, and you did not want to get it. Welcome to Parshat Metzora.

Last week in Tazria, we learned that there are lots of rules concerning what to do with someone who contracted it; how to behave toward them, and how they should behave toward you. Rules and rules that taught us to beware the plague, beware the contagion, this unseen malevolence.

But what about rules for coming back, for welcoming back, for removing this sense of impurity? How does one transition from fear of tzara’at to no fear?

Parshat Metzorah comes to the rescue.

Here’s just one example of how to welcome the person back. Take the person — the metzora — to the cohen (priest). Have the cohen check him out. If he seems OK, take two birds. Kill one and pour its blood into a bowl of water. Take the other live bird, hold it with some cedar, hyssop and “crimson stuff,” dip all of that into the bowl of blood-water mixture and sprinkle that liquid dripping from the live bird onto the person who is to be cleansed.

Got that? Stay with me.

The person being cleansed has to shave off all of his hair, go into quarantine, and offer a korban, where some of the blood from that animal sacrifice is put on his ear, thumb and toe. After that, there is even more to do, and then the person is clean.

Have you stayed with me? Or have you already moved on to the Chronicle’s celebrations on the other side of this page?

Generations of rabbis move quickly through this parsha. Generations of 13-year-olds have bemoaned being assigned this portion. And yet — surprise! Another face of Torah appears.

We are finishing, for now, our own contagion. Omicron is fading. The transmission rate of COVID-19 is low. The majority of us, in most places, can now take off our masks. For now. Some of us are thrilled. Some of us are very reluctant. Some of us are still scared of the contagion and just don’t believe that conditions are safe.

Imagine that poor metzora. He goes through a terrible ordeal, completely recovers — and then what? Returns home? Do you think he will be welcomed back with hugs? He’s totally fine, cleared by a cohen, but who’s giving this guy a kiss hello? He just had tzara’at!

When something so scary happens, we are changed, we are scarred. We are suspicious. It is very difficult to take “yes” for an answer, to believe in the all-clear announcement. What if they missed something?

The cohen assures us the metzora is all clear. How do we know he’s right? Answer: Remember the ritual of the two birds and cedar and sprinkling and a korban and blood on the earlobe and all of that? Why is Parshat Metzora so filled with detail? Because that’s what it takes for us to believe things will be OK. It takes that much detail and ritual to give us the courage to feel confident that the contagion is contained.

An epidemiologist tells me that the rate of COVID transmission is so low that we have little to fear, almost nothing, and I’m supposed to just buy that? Scary! OK, so I have taken my mask off but I feel like I need to do something to mark this moment. I want a ritual, something to mark “before” and “after.”

Maybe it’s not that crazy an idea to take two birds, a hunk of cedar, hyssop, a basin of water and put bird blood on my big toe. Or if not all that, how about a bracha, something between shehechiyanu and benching gomel? I need something like that because contagion is scary and trust is scary and accepting that an invisible plague is absent, for now, is really, really hard even when it is true.

It’s easy to dismiss Parshat Metzora, but this year its wisdom, newly revealed, may make it the most important parsha of the year. PJC

Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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