Posted on April 2, 2011 by Tamara Frankel
Much ink has been spilled over the seemingly cryptic laws of ritual purity and the illness of tzaraat recounted in Parshat Tazria. Actually I learned this week from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (of the UK) that the original translation of the disease of as “leprosy”. This is a misnomer since the biblical disease of tzaraat affects one’s house and clothes.
So what is the significance or meaning of the laws of purity and particularly the condition of tzaraat named in the parsha?
Let’s start with this premise: I’ve found that we distance ourselves from lots of different people for lots of different reasons. Sometimes we do this because we are disturbed by or in fear of the appearances. I’ve become acutely aware of this kind of distancing in my time in New York. During my teaching this month, there was an outbreak of lice at the school among a group of female students. Although only a small percentage of the high school was diagnosed, the students were paranoid and kept away from friends who had lice and those who were suspected of having it. Even the teachers were discussing proactive ways to protect themselves from the contaminated students. As a result, the girls with lice were ostracized and neglected from many of their friends and faculty, even some days those students had been given a clean bill of health.
Or what about the homeless person who looks disheveled and is begging for money at the train station? I see this scene everyday on the subway in New York. It’s like (almost) everyone is thinking: if you don’t look at the homeless person, s/he doesn’t exist. But where is the logic in that?! I mean, isn’t it clear that these individuals are in need? Yes, we don’t know how s/he got on the street or if s/he has substance abused problems and where s/he might take our money. But does that give us the right to ignore and pretend we don’t see someone in need?! Would it cost us anything to smile and say “good morning” or even “hello”? This is another example of a person who we put at a distance.
Then there is another kind of person who we probably should dissociate from but often don’t: that’s the unethical, unkind person– the one who our parents would say is “a bad influence”. This person is capable of many things: speaking badly about others, becoming involved in (or initiating) unethical business dealings, pulling people away from their valued relationships with family and friends, ignoring responsibilities to his/her community and the like. Now I don’t claim to understand all of the laws of ritual purity, but I do know that it speaks to the question of “who is in” and “who is out” of the community. The parsha pushes us to ask ourselves: who is excluded from community or society at large because of their physical, economic or social status and needs assistance (re)integrating? Who has acted in repugnant ways that ought to disqualify his/her membership from the community?
I think our instincts make us quick to judge the external appearances of others and slow to critique the behaviour of those with defunct moral compasses. So, if nothing else, Parshat Tazria tries to refocus the timeless human condition of judging people all the time. The Torah calls on us to place our attention on who to judge disparagingly and who to judge kindly and show sympathy.
The parsha charges us to do integrate those with physical and possibly other material distinctions and exclude those with morally repugnant codes and behaviour.
Reach out to the leper.
Push out the liar.
May we carry this message into the new week and the new Jewish month of Nisan which starts this Tuesday.