Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5781
Abbie and Benny, beautiful and important Torah.
Benny, I think you’re right. A few days ago the Park Slope Patch reported that a full fifty percent of this neighborhood is at least partially vaccinated. CBE now has a reopening task force making plans for how and when and with what precautions we will reopen services and programs to members in person. We’re all pretty eager to do the things we couldn’t do for the last thirteen months.
But will everything go back to “normal”? Will life be like it was before? It seems every day there are new predictions about how this pandemic will have changed us. Will we have trouble making eye contact because we’re so used to seeing each other over zoom? Will our work look different, with more people working from home? Will we travel less for business and conferences?
In the context of late pandemic, this week’s double portion seems to be telling us that we’re asking the wrong set of questions, or at least missing an important category of questions. Rather than wonder how we are different, perhaps we ought to be asking how we want to be different.
Benny, you pointed out that the ritual after a metzora is declared pure gives both the person who’s been sick and the community confidence that re-entry is safe, much like a vaccine card will do. When the priest puts blood on the metzora’s right ear, right thumb and right big toe, this was a sign of protection and safety. For the ancient Israelites, blood was an apotropaic substance, meaning it would guard you and keep you safe. So it makes sense that the priest would smear blood on the edges of the person’s body to ward off any harm that might come to them or from them. But what about the oil? What was the significance of the oil?
It turns out that the ritual of smearing the blood and oil on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe is identical to the ritual performed at the ordination of the priests. In other words, the metzora, the person who just a few weeks earlier had to walk through the camp loudly declaring that they are unclean, the person who’s had to quarantine outside of the camp, is now not just welcomed back but treated like the high priest, the highest ranking person in the society. As you mentioned, oil is placed over the blood on the right ear, the right thumb and the right big toe, and then the remaining oil is poured over the head of the metzora.
When used in ritual in the ancient Near East, oil represented elevation of status in the society. In fact, the word messiah, mashiach, means anointed one, as in anointed with oil. In case you don’t know, the mashiach is theoretically the person we’re all waiting for, the descendant of King David who our tradition says will one day bring about God’s world on earth, a world characterized by justice and peace. When kings were anointed in ancient Israel, they were understood to have the ruach or spirit of YHVH placed upon them. This was a kind of absorption of divine qualities by the leader. When the High Priest was anointed with oil, it set the priest apart from the profane or ordinary aspects of life. The word kadosh was used, meaning that the oil sanctified the priest, enabling him to come in contact with the holy objects of the Tabernacle.
What does it mean to be sanctified, or made holy? In the very next portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code, the priestly document at the center of the Torah, which sets out the meaning of holiness. “Be Holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” Holiness has to do with imitation of God. Holiness is aspirational for human beings. It is becoming more godly. While there are ritual aspects to the Holiness Code, as well as a significant section related to family relations and sexual conduct, most of the code is about how people treat one another in the society. “Veahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself,” is here. Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. Do not steal, do not defraud, do not render unfair decisions, do not deal falsely with each other. When you harvest your field, do not reap all the way to the edges, leave it for the poor and the stranger. Do not wrong a stranger, love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers. Holiness is aspiration to be godly in the way we treat one another in the society.
Why would the metzora undergo a ritual identical to the high priest’s? The priests’ role is to care for the community as a whole. They attend to those at the edges of or outside the camp (such as the metzora), they make peace between those quarreling, and they facilitate a process by which people grapple with their wrongdoing, and they facilitate forgiveness and a return to God.
Abbie, you taught us so very beautifully today about women’s awesome life-giving powers in relation to and contrast with death and mortality. And you suggested that perhaps a new mother’s quarantine was less about a punishment related to uncleanness, and more a cocoon of time, buffering the tender and transformational experience of childbirth from the rough forces of the everyday. You reflected that this year has been so for each of us, an opportunity for time away from the ordinary rush of life. This is the secret that many of us have whispered to one another all year long—that in the midst of the terrible tragedy of the pandemic there was also an experience of rest, of needed quiet and inwardness, of reflection and insight.
Perhaps the experience of quarantine—whether after the birth of a child, or during a plague—is a sensitization process, giving the isolated person a new perspective, from a bit of a distance, a distance like the perspective of the Divine. Perhaps the returning metzora in ancient Israel had new wisdom to offer from the experience of isolation. Perhaps in the ritual of elevation, in the imitation of the priests and of God, there was an opportunity to be aspirational about their own lives and about their society as a whole.
If we are like the metzora, what did we see with new eyes during our quarantine that causes us to emerge with new or deeper aspirations for our lives and our society? If we are on the cusp of re-entry, in what ways do we want to be different this time around? In what ways do we not want to simply go back to how things were?
I’d suggest three societal insights from the pandemic that we must bring with us into our new future:
1. We saw structured gender inequality. We already knew that women’s unpaid labor makes the world go round. But during the pandemic, it was glaring. Every parent was stressed, but it was moms who were losing it, as a higher percentage of homemaking, cooking, and childcare falls to them in most homes, and without the outsourcing of those functions, women with children were in an impossible bind. More than 2 million women left the workforce in 2020, crying out for structural change and relief.
2. We saw the value of essential workers. In New York, we cheered them every night at 7. It became clear that many of the lowest paid jobs were the jobs we rely on the most, that we cannot function without. Childcare workers, teachers, nurses, hospital orderlies, sanitation workers, janitors, delivery workers. This has the potential to change our attitude toward organized labor and our valuation of the lowest paid jobs in our country.
3. We saw white supremacy and systemic racism more clearly than many of us had ever seen it before. We saw the pandemic sicken and kill Black and brown people disproportionately, and we saw Derek Chauvin snuff out the life of George Floyd. We filled the streets in an unprecedented way, demanding systemic change in the catastrophic policing system. But since then, the killing hasn’t stopped. And this week, 20-year-old dad Daunte Wright was killed just minutes from where Derek Chauvin is on trial, in a town that bears our name, Brooklyn Center. And 13 year old Adam Toledo was killed in Chicago also this week. 13 years old, 7th grade, that’s your age Abbie and Benny. Think about how your whole life is ahead of you. We decided this year to never let this be normal again. Now and going forward we must make that real.
As the world opens up, there will be pressure to slide back into old patterns, to re-embrace life as it was. But none of us has to succumb to that pressure. Each of us has the ability to articulate our aspirations for our own futures and the future of our society. We saw differently this year. We learned. We re-evaluated what mattered most in our own lives and in our country, and now is the time to decide who we want to be. We can aspire to holiness, to Godliness—to a new and different future for ourselves and our country.