By Rabbi Peter Rigler
I never imagined it! They used to come into my office when I handed the b’nai mitzvah students the Torah portion of Tazriah, and I could see disappointment.
“Really?” one student said, “Some kids get Noah, and I get this stuff about skin disease?”
In Leviticus 13, we read, “And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzaraat, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”
A beloved colleague tells the story that the only time someone was happy when they saw Tazriah was when it turned out the parents were dermatologists.
Our perspectives can shift and the meaning of our text adjusts with it! This portion will never be read the same way again! What student would want to embrace a portion about disease?
This portion grapples not only with the disease known as tzaraat, often mistranslated as leprosy, but also with the societal behaviors in response. An acknowledgment that disease can be scary not just for the person who is ill but for those who live with and near them who don’t understand what is happening. The symptoms are described in detail — really graphic detail!
What’s described is leprosy, skin afflictions, anything from eczema or psoriasis to deep infections. It was actually the priest who would diagnose and determine if the person had to be quarantined, was actually clean enough to stay in the community and how/when they could return.
I could never have imagined the moment that happened for an upcoming b’nai mitzvah student who said, “Rabbi, I got the most important portion!” They explained that the portion Tazriah felt relevant in the wake of the pandemic.
What my student realized was that the Torah was struggling with the same things we are today.
Think about the central questions we are experiencing: How are our leaders protecting exposure? Is there a connection between materialism over matters of health? Does the individual or needs of the community come first? How are the needs of those who live on the margins of our society being addressed? How do we look at those who are in the center of the storm including health workers, teachers, deliverers and leaders?
Our Torah portion considers, in a cutting edge way for the time it was written, how not to cast people aside when they are sick, how to create safety and care for the larger community and how to lead through such a crisis.
Take just one example about the communal need to care for others.
The Talmud reminds us when considering these verses, one calls out their infected status not only to warn others of the contagion but also to elicit compassion and prayers on one’s behalf (BT Moed Katan 5a). It is the responsibility of the affected person to isolate, ask for help, social-distance, and it is the responsibility of the community to offer the support, prayer and ultimately whatever assistance was possible. No one should be isolated more than necessary for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community.
Whatever the cause of the separation from community, it was the priest who would tend to the individual and help determine when they could return.
It is precisely because we come back to Torah text so often that in it we constantly find wisdom. This is even more true as our world and lives change like this reading of Tazriah. A disciple of Rabbi Hillel’s known as Ben Bag-Bag said the following: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:22).
Our tradition is built on this model. We return to the text activating prior knowledge and holding new experiences so that we can gain new understandings. We are not alone as life brings new challenges — we have the wisdom of Torah to hold and guide us! JE
Rabbi Peter Rigler is the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Broomall. 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.