By Rabbi Glenn Ettman
I have Tazria! Great! I am the rabbi that gets to write about the diseases of the Bible.
Even though, in a year like this one, we can connect even deeper with the idea of infectious diseases, Tazria-Metzora, the double Torah portion for this week, is challenging. Someone with tzaraat (this disease) has to be banished from the community, to quarantine and to stay safe in order to protect the sanctity of the larger community.
This idea sounds familiar, doesn’t it? For a whole year, we have dealt with the challenges of quarantine. But also, for a whole year we have begun to see some of the beautiful elements of slowing down, looking around and embracing elements of newness in our lives. Tazria-Metzora gives us an opportunity to see things a little differently.
In the beginning of the parsha, we read about what happens when someone has tzaraat and the causes to be put outside of the community. Many of us know all too well the anxiety of being away, not allowed to be with a group and isolated from what is comfortable, known and familiar.
Maybe there is a reason in being outside other than quarantining the illnesses of the community. Maimonides explains that tzaraat is not a natural phenomenon but a sign to warn the people of Israel not to say evil things about each other. The time outside of the community was a time for the person to think about what s/he has said or done.
When we find ourselves outside our world of comfort or regular life, we are not lost; rather, we are in something called liminal space. The concept of liminal space was most famously posited by the cultural anthropologist, Victor Turner, who writes extensively about the need for humans to strive to find a community of like mindedness and togetherness.
Vacillating on the idea of liminality, or the feeling of being in-between and lost, and the need for communitas, the deep sense of what a community provides, Turner shows that humans are programmed to strive to find togetherness. When we find ourselves in this liminal space, however, we are more open to realize the beauty and newness of what is around us.
Tazria is liminal space. Perhaps Maimonides is onto something that being outside our camp of comfort is the time we are forced to stop and think, to take stock of what is going on and pause the frantic rhythms of our lives.
It is kind of like the Israelites, wandering in the desert. They are neither here nor there, but they are somewhere. Sure, they kvetch about missing the fish and cucumbers of oppression and they yearn for the savory milk and honey of freedom and complain that they feel like they are nowhere, but they are not. They are actually somewhere. And that somewhere is a wondrous place.
They are in a desert of possibility — both literal and metaphoric. A place of reds and yellows and oranges reflecting off of the horizon. A cool breeze bringing on the evening crispness. The blossoming of something new. A white flower blooming on the coarse cactus which reveals the possibilities if you look at it right.
The liminal space, and the darkness of feeling nowhere in the desert, can really be the illumination of being somewhere.
I used to think about this a lot in the airport. People come and people go; people are never really there. They are always moving from one place to the next — going home. Coming back from vacation. Stuck in the seemingly non-space of a sterile terminal. Anxiously awaiting the next leg of your journey. But while you are not physically at home or actually at your final destination, you are not nowhere. You are somewhere. Looking at the numbers at the gate allows you to take time from your frantic running and important emails.
Marveling at the beauty of what is beyond the windows gives us a chance to think and realize. The “non-space” of transit, this liminal moment is really only in our minds. The perceived non-space is the actualized somewhere of great possibility. Where so much can happen.
The Israelites are in the desert which, while it can be liminal space, is the place of revelation, inspiration and realization. God did not reveal Torah to the people in Egypt or in the Promised Land. It was in the desert, this liminal space, that we received the Torah!
This Torah portion reminds us that it is OK to enter into the non-space and encounter the liminal moments in our lives in order to have these revelations. While the laws concerning quarantining skin disease, in the Bible, and in our personal recent experience, can seem like a sentence of separation, we need to realize that value of what Maimonides has taught us because it forces us to stop, and think, and evaluate.
Tazria-Metzora comes at the right time for each of us as we now are beginning to see new hope on the horizon with vaccines, but we must never lose sight of what we have learned and what we can use in our future. It is about perspective. Being outside our respective camps of comfort of everyday life has helped many people see greater beauty and have a greater connection to others.
These are the lessons that we must continue to take with us as live our lives boldly in the coming weeks. Ask yourself, how are you going to handle the “outside”? How are you going to cope with the difficult and the liminal? Are you ready for the new to be revealed?
The darkness of an encroaching ending is really the illumination of a new beginning. It is all in how you look at it. I have Tazria! Great!
Rabbi Glenn Ettman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.