reflection by Rabbi Sara Brandes
An uneasy feeling arises in me when I settle in to read this week’s Torah portion, which among other things, mandates social isolation due to a mysterious and highly contagious illness. The calamity there is tzarat, often grossly translated as leprosy, and the prescription is successive periods of seven days in total isolation, followed by an elaborate cleansing ritual and sacrificial offering upon reentry into the community. What is most curious about tzaraat is that it is not just bodies that can be infected by it, but also clothing and buildings. When considering this type of widespread illness, which affects not just people but inanimate objects, the Rabbis deemed gossip its cause (thanks too to an unfortunate tale about Miriam), inviting us to consider a world where the way we treat one another can be seen on our skin, our clothes and our houses.
The chapters of the Torah that address tzaraat, contagious illness par excellence, are bookended by those that address fertility. The section opens “Isha, ki tazria v’noldah…When a woman conceive and gives birth…” and end with the laws that guide us in the biblical practices of sacred sexuality. Life and death. Subjects with which we become intimately acquainted of late.
It is, perhaps for that reason, that the ritual of purification that releases one from quarantine strikes me as profoundly beautiful, and instructive for we who will need to find ways to heal, body and soul, from the collective trauma of the moment.
“This shall be the ritual for a metzora at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”
- Leviticus 14:2-7
The relief that I feel when studying this section does not come when I picture the bird set free, soaring no doubt past Noah’s rainbows which these twin birds are meant to elicit in our minds, but rather, from the image of the two birds, one living one dead, dipped together in blood and spring water, sprinkled seven times on he who had been sent away. In the priestly cultic system, water and blood are symbols of life and seven is a metaphor for wholeness and creation. It is the brush with death that enables us to come into direct contact with these things, to be submerged in life.
The power in this imagery and in this time we are living through is its honesty, an honesty rare in our modern and oft-sterilized lives, when we can cling to the mistaken idea that death is not an intimate part of life. But, it is. As both our days in isolation and the death tolls rise, our resistance to that truth softens.
As this ritual reminds us, we will again fly free, our time of separation will end. When it does, we will be like the bird, painted red, soaring above spring waters. We will have faced death and we will be ready to live.
P.S. If the imagery here speaks to you, click here to read the continuation of the ritual which takes place seven days later, after the healed has twice shaved her head, and is painted with blood to complete her reentry.