The ick factor and the Torah portion

Tazria/Metzora

Leviticus 12:1-15:33

This week’s double Torah portion Tazria/Metzora describes spiritual defilement by means of child birth, physical ailment, and discharges of both semen and blood by men and women. A small section of this week’s portion describes a kind of tzarat or affliction that attacks houses and fabrics. This week we enter an ancient mindset that seemed to revile some of the natural functions of the body along with physical ailments that were poorly understood. It made everything from menstrual blood to semen as something to revile rather than as natural and normal functions of the body. Both blood and semen in these Torah portions with the potential for life are treated in a special category that can cause spiritual impurity.

The opening of the portion describes the conditions of childbirth that bring the mother spiritual impurity or uncleanliness. When a woman gives birth there is a lot of blood. It is part of the process of the body. And so according to this portion she must purify herself following the ordeal of giving birth and coming into contact with blood that holds life. Depending upon whether she has a male child or a female child there is a different ritual for restoring her spiritual purity. For a male child she is unclean for 33 days. For a female child it is double the time for 66 days. According to tradition she has to account for both her own and her daughter’s potential to bear children later on.

In the ancient mind and certainly the Biblical mind blood and semen were the sources of life. When blood or semen was spilled or oozed from the body they understood that the potentiality of life was being leaked. Thus ancient mindset called for a spiritual and holy state of being that needed to be restored in the individual. Balance needed to be restored, the balance of life and life giving forces. And this week’s portions describes ancient methods of restoring that spiritual balance put out of whack by contact with blood, semen and whatever the affliction of tzarat may be. There is an intertwining of the physical disease of tzarat which is some kind of scaly skin affliction and a notion of spiritual impurity. This idea gets further reinforced because the priest acts as diagnostician and also has a role in figuring out when the person is no longer impure but clean. The priest is in part doctor and shaman.

But the tzarat mentioned in this week’s portions is not only in human beings but can also be a condition in houses or fabrics. Scholars believe it is some kind of fungus or mildew that brings impurity to the household. This week’s portions also describe ways of cleansing the house and fabrics of this “ailment”.

Today for us moderns these two chapters of Torah give us much consternation. It is hard to relate to the ancient attitude that holds these very normal conditions as something unholy. But this ancient mindset continues to inform our own attitudes about sicknesses. We continue in our own day and time to sometimes see certain disease as punishment rather than as the random acts of contagion or functions of the body. We are sometimes reviled by skin conditions and turn our heads when someone is afflicted or looks different. We sometimes don’t affirm a person humanity who is ill. We isolate and ostracize those who are sick and the “ick” factor is high! Indeed a ritual of re-entry to the community might be exactly something that would help. The Torah portion has within it ways for all these people with these various afflictions to re-enter the community and to be cleansed. No one stays outside the camp forever.

And perhaps that is the message for today. There are times when our own health issues take precedence and we need to attend to them. We need our doctors and nurses and health care professionals to diagnose and help us on the road to recovery and healing. But healing doesn’t just happen physically. We can understand that there is a spiritual dimension to our physical realities. And this spiritual reality also needs attending to. Whether through prayer like a healing Mishabeyrach or going to the ritual bath to celebrate recovery, these acts help us reintegrate our spiritual and the physical realms. And that is exactly the point of these two portions. We have to recognize how the spiritual can express itself physically and how the physical expresses itself spiritual. And when we do so we can rebalance our lives. Perhaps that is the message of this week’s parasha.

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