Most people try really hard to avoid having their bar or bat mitzvah on the Shabbat when we read Tazria-Metzora. I know this not only because I am a rabbi, but because this was my bat mitzvah portion.
Tazria is about purity and impurity, including the impurity that comes with childbirth. It is also about skin disease and bodily infections; about swellings, rashes, boils and skin discoloration; and about a weird fungus that grows in houses and clothing. Finally, it is about the role of the priest in diagnosing and healing these conditions. Not very appealing or relevant when you are 13.
When I was 13, I didn’t understand about human weakness and frailty. I didn’t understand our need for rituals that can support us and help us transform shame and guilt into wholeness again. But now, almost 50 years later, I understand this as part of the deeper meaning of this portion.
The Torah puts it in terms of a skin disease that seemed to be dangerous to other people. The task of the kohen, the priest, was to examine the person with the skin disease — a disease that might not only affect the body, but also the soul — and determine whether it was dangerous. If it was, the kohen would declare the person “impure” and he or she would be quarantined outside of the camp.
But the task didn’t end there.
During the period of isolation, the ill were cared for by the kohen, even if it meant putting his sanctity in danger. The kohen was to check the condition of the sick people and determine when they were healed. The kohen then enacted an elaborate ritual so the afflicted person could return to the community and to his or her home.
I didn’t know, when I first studied my parasha, that I would grow up to be a rabbi. I didn’t know that someday I would be a leader of a community and that people would sometimes come to me with broken hearts or broken lives, looking for spiritual healing. I didn’t know that I would be called upon to create new rituals to help people navigate difficult and complicated transitions. Nor did I know that sometimes it would be necessary for me to intervene in situations where people needed to be quarantined, taken out of the community because they were dangerous to themselves or someone else. For me this has sometimes meant intervention with substance abusers, with people involved in domestic violence or with people whose bitter divorces were hurting their children. I didn’t know then that people wouldn’t always appreciate the diagnosis, that it took courage to say, “Tameh! Tameh! This is not acceptable. This behavior is dangerous to the community.”
But I know it now. And I know that it is also my challenge to discern when it would be safe and appropriate to welcome them back into the community.
I also didn’t know that sometimes the community would want to cast out people who shouldn’t be cast out: the sick, the lonely, the elderly, the poor, those who no longer fit in or those who are different. The task of the kohen was to bring them back so that the community could be whole.
That, too, is the rabbi’s task.
But this is not just the work of the rabbi. Our tradition challenges us to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is the work that each of us must do: to reach out to those who are outside, to those who are sick or poor, to those who are hurting, to those whose hearts are broken. Not only must we find a way to bring them in, but we must also model through our own lives and our own caring that God awaits their return and that healing can come from brokenness.
So this difficult Torah portion teaches us something very important: We need to confront what is broken in our world to begin to fix it. None of us is perfect. Neither is our world. So this Torah portion challenges us as well to think about politics, about social inequality, about health care, about civility in political discourse … about all sorts of issues that make me want to say: “Tameh! Tameh! This is not acceptable.”
What I understand most powerfully now, all those years after my bat mitzvah, is that the first steps are seeing what is wrong, diagnosing the illness and recognizing the danger. But we can’t stop there. The work must continue until each of us, working together, can make our communities whole.
Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).