"Impure, Impure!"

Confronting the most vulnerable parts of ourselves

23 years ago this Shabbat, I became a Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat Tazria. For those of you who are not familiar with Tazria, it’s a…. challenging parsha. Primarily concerned with laws of impurity relating to a mysterious disease called tzara’at, it’s hard to find much that feels applicable to our 21st century reality, where the Temple isn’t standing and most laws of purity and impurity no longer apply.

However, this year feels like Parshat Tazria’s moment. Combined this year with a second parsha, Metzorah, the Torah reading we would have read in shul is all about what to do if people are struck with this mysterious disease. Unlike Covid 19, tzara’at is visible, a set of white scales that appear on the skin. However, the protocol for each of the diseases is strikingly similar—if you are afflicted, you isolate yourself from the rest of the community. As you walk through the camp on your way to isolation, you cover your face, so that people know to stay away from you. Rather than going back into the camp when you think you have recovered, you remain isolation until someone—in this case, the kohen—can declare you pure again. In many ways, Vayikra 13 summons our current reality in ways that are eerily prescient.

Most striking to me, however, a small moment where the person with tzara’at is given a voice. In Vayikra 13:45, the Torah says:

וְהַצָּרוּעַ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ הַנֶּגַע בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא:

And the tzarua, upon whom there is the plague, his clothing shall be torn and his head should be uncovered, and he shall cover himself to the lip and call out, “impure, impure!”

Part of the concern here is practical. It is crucial that nobody go near the person who has been struck with tzara’at; he is potentially contagious and certainly can transfer his impurity. However, it is clear to me that something else is happening here. My assumption in reading this parsha, both as a 12 year old and now, is that the person with tzara’at is ashamed of his affliction. I can imagine wanting to sneak out of the camp under the cover of night, hoping that nobody will notice I’m gone until I can come back. However, the tzarua is not allowed to hide his reality. Instead, he is forced to acknowledge it to himself and to others, crying out, “Impure! Impure!” In his most vulnerable moment, he is forced to expose himself to his community.

The gemara, on Moed Katan 5a, cites a tannaitic teaching:

וטמא טמא יקרא” צריך להודיע צערו לרבים ורבים מבקשין עליו רחמים”

“And he should cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” He needs to tell the community about his suffering and the community will pray for him.

I love this gemara. The person with tzara’at is ashamed, and he is in pain, maybe both physically and spiritually. He is forced away from his community when he might most need support. But the community doesn’t respond with scorn. Instead, they pray for him. They keep him in mind even when he isn’t present. And, I would like to imagine, they welcome him when he is recovered and able to return.

Every day now, we are more and more aware of the people who are suffering. Some of them, like the tzarua, are struck with physical maladies. Those who are lucky enough to be able to heal at home, rather than in the hospital, are locked up, away from society and even the others in their own homes. Many more are struggling with anxiety, depression, and fear. People are losing their jobs, unsure of how they’ll put food on their tables or keep a roof over their heads. And yet, there is a general fear of admitting our vulnerabilities. We don’t want to admit that we feel weak, and so we hide behind our pictures of freshly baked bread, adorable babies, or inspiring chalk art. (I confess to having done two out of three of those things.) But imagine if we could call out “Impure! Impure! I need help! Living outside of my community right now has left me feeling isolated and lonely. Please show that you are thinking of me, even when we are apart.”

When I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, I never could have imagined that Tazria would feel so relevant, and of course, I wish it had never become thus. But since we are living in a world of plagues and alienation, my hope for all of us is that we can admit our vulnerabilities, in order that the people who love us—even if they are far away—can send us the love we need and deserve. Shabbat shalom.