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Dan Has Questions About Sickness And Health: Parashiot Tazria and Metzora

04/19/2023 04:42:41 PM


Dan Leemon

This week we read two Parashiot which often go together: Tazaria  and Metzora. Both continue from last week on the theme of what is clean/pure versus unclean/impure. Last week, this had to do with the foods we eat. This week, it's about illnesses and physical conditions (especially illnesses that can be easily seen - like skin rashes). Tazria means "conceived", and includes various rules of cleanliness relating to childbirth. The word Metzora refers to someone suffering from a skin disease. As usual, the Torah goes into specific and graphic detail (I would not suggest you read these Parashiot while you're eating). But despite how outdated and, frankly, a little disgusting these readings may sound, they are remarkably and unfortunately relevant to our lives today, having recently lived through the Covid pandemic. Most students in past years would have trouble relating to these Parashiot, but I bet parts of them will sound very familiar to you.

So, here's something that's difficult to imagine, but try: It's thousands of years ago and you are one of the million-ish Jews living close to one another on your way to the land of Canaan. There are no trained doctors or nurses or medical technicians. There is no modern science or medicine. Nobody's ever heard of bacteria or viruses; nobody knows what cells are, let alone DNA. There are no blood tests or x-rays or MRIs. There are no pills or vaccines or drug stores. But people still get sick, and sometimes the people around them get sick, too.

- Since there was no such thing as a doctor back then, whom would you have put in charge of dealing with the sick?

- Since there was no medical science, what might you have thought about why people get sick? What would you have told sick people to do to keep from infecting others?

- Most importantly, with none of these things, how would you have felt if you or someone close to you got sick?

What we learn from the Torah is that, in ancient times, the priests were in charge of diagnosing illnesses and telling sick people what to do to get healthy and keep others from getting sick. The Torah goes into great (and gross!) detail on what these illnesses look like, how to know if they're serious, how to tell if the illness has spread to people's clothing or houses, and how to know when someone is well again. If you answered above that one of the things you might do to keep other people healthy is to make sure everything was kept clean - people's skin, their houses, their clothes - that's what the Torah says, too. If you answered that you might have to quarantine sick people, and make sure that they took responsibility for staying away from healthy people, that's also what the Torah prescribes. The Torah even talks about wearing a face covering when you're sick (and shouting "Unclean! Unclean!" so other people stay away from you).

- Does any of this sound familiar?

- Since there was no science, how do you think people figured out that things such as face coverings, quarantining, and washing would work?

When we discover a contagious disease for which we do not yet have a cure, these ancient methods turn out to work - keeping our distance, keeping ourselves and our homes clean, and isolating or quarantining sick or contagious people. So it's not that hard for us to put ourselves in the place of our ancestors in some ways. And yet we are so much better off today: We know why and how people get sick, we have several Covid vaccines, and we have many ways to treat people who are sick even when we don't have a cure. We have skilled, trained, heroic people to help us. So here we are in 2023, with our lives back to "normal" in most ways, and we can begin to reflect on our experience:

- What did you learn from the pandemic?

- What will you remember most about the pandemic?

- Other than Covid-19 itself, what was the worst part of the pandemic for you?

- Is there anything about the pandemic you will miss?

- Has the pandemic changed how you or your family behave day-to-day?

One of the things I learned is that we can still be together as a community even if we can't be together physically, but that it's easy to forget how nice it is to be among other people and learn together, celebrate together, or enjoy a performance or sporting event together. I learned that some of you enjoy attending junior congregation from home or in your pajamas. And I learned that what the Torah has to teach us can be relevant in times of sickness as well as in times of health.

Shabbat shalom,


Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784