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Illness, Isolation, and Reentry; 1st Hybrid Shabbat Service

On Shabbat morning, April 17, we read from the double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora.  These are the parshiot that B’nai Mitzvah kids pray they don’t get.  The portions are filled with cringey details about oozing sores, skin disease, and bodily emissions.  Tazria-Metzora is tough read.  Truthfully though, once I am able to get over the “ick” factor, I find these portions fascinating.  They give us a window into ancient medicine, and into the human psyche.

It feels like more than coincidence that we would read Tazria-Metzora – these passages of Torah that deal with illness, isolation, and reentering community, this morning at our first hybrid Shabbat morning service.  After all, over the last 13 months, we have dealt with disease, quarantine, and now finally, the beginning of a return to in-person community.

In our triennial section, we read Lev. 13:45-46 which says, “As for the person with a leprous affection, their clothes shall be rent, their head shall be left bare, and they shall cover over their upper lip; and they shall call out, ‘Impure, Impure!’  They shall be impure as long as the disease is on them.  Being impure, they shall dwell apart; their dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

I have long been disturbed by this passage of text – at a time when someone is at their most vulnerable – sick and scared, they are commanded to call attention to themselves by walking around and announcing that they are ritually impure.  This feels unnecessarily cruel – humiliating, even if in an ancient society without social media, it was a practical way of letting people know they are sick.

Rashi, in quoting Midrash Halakha (Sifra, Tazria, Negaim, 13:7) as well as the Talmud (Moed Katan 5a) says that the person with tzara’at – what we call leprosy, although there is a debate about whether or not it is really leprosy, declares that they are unclean (or impure) so that people will stay away.  Then the person must isolate themself outside the camp without any contact with other people, until the disease clears up.

There is another explanation for why the sick person is required to announce “impure impure” before quarantining outside the camp.  In several tractates in the Talmud, the rabbis teach that the person shouts “impure impure” so that people will pray for mercy and healing on their behalf.  In other words, if the community doesn’t know that someone is sick, we can’t pray for their recovery. We can’t offer our support. While this interpretation sits a bit better with me, I am still troubled by the sick person not having a choice about when to share that they are sick.

We know that everyone comes to terms with illness differently.  We know that while some people make public announcements and openly ask for help right away, others choose to keep their health status private.  It doesn’t matter if it’s leprosy, Covid, cancer, depression, or Crohn’s.

This isn’t anything new or particularly modern – the talmudic sage Rava changes his mind about sharing information about his own health.  Masechet Nedarim (40a) reports that, “On the first day of his illness, Rava said to his visitors: ‘Do not reveal to anyone that I am sick!’ However, later he said ‘Go and tell everyone in the market…so that those who care about me will ask for mercy on my behalf.’ I imagine that Rava needs time to process his illness before sharing the news and reaching out for help.

Coming back to the text in Leviticus, after the person with tzara’at/leprosy makes their ‘impure’ announcement, they must dwell outside the camp – they must quarantine until their illness goes away.  In this moment – in our moment, it is impossible not to picture the hundreds of thousands of people who died from Covid, completely alone.  It is impossible not to think about the stories of countless people who got sick and locked themselves in their guestroom, or basement, or attic, or even a closet for two weeks.  Yes, this was the way to stop the spread of the pandemic, just as it was the way to stop disease from spreading in Torah times, but how lonely, how frightening both physically and emotionally for the person suffering alone.

Even those of us who were spared from being sick with Covid have spent more than a year in isolation.  We have been afraid to leave our homes, unable to be in the company of others, and for many of us, this physical isolation has led to emotional isolation as well.  We have been lonely, as we have waited, prayed, and yearned for this pandemic to subside.

And finally, with vaccines and masks and keeping our distance for so long, it is.  And here we are – some of us physically on the Sukkah Patio joined by so many on Zoom.  And let’s be honest:  it’s weird, isn’t it?  It’s so different.  It’s not the same as it was pre-pandemic.  We are not the same.  And I believe this disconcerting feeling also happens to the person who recovers from serious illness and is ready to come back to the community.

Parashat Metzora, the second of the two Torah portions, describes the reentry ritual for the person who recovers from tzara’at.  The Torah understands that the person reentering can’t just fit back into their old life like nothing happened and that everything will be the same.  So there are stages and prescribed offerings that create a new path to allow the person to return.

The priest makes sacrifices while the newly healthy person washes their clothes, shaves their hair, and bathes in water.  The person may now reenter the camp but not return to their tent. A week later, they wash their clothes, shave their hair, and bathe again, then they offer more sacrifices, and it is at this point, that the person can return to their tent and fully resume life in community.

Reentry does not happen all at once; rather it happens incrementally, a little bit at a time.  First the recovered person comes back into the camp, then there is a waiting period, and only then, can they go home.  So too for us.

Here we are on the Sukkah patio – physically distanced and with a limited number of chairs.  In a sense, we have reentered the camp but not our tent – not yet.  There will be a waiting period, and when it is safe, we will go into our building.  When we do, when it is time, we won’t offer sacrifices of pigeons, lambs, and flour with oil, but I imagine that we will offer our most sincere prayers of gratitude.

Reentry is complicated.  Whether for newly recovered person finding their place again in the community or for us as a community finding our way in this new world, there will bumps and glitches.  Not everything will go as smoothly as we would like – see the last few months of the county, country, and world opening up and shutting down, and more locally at Beth David as we planned programs and then needed to cancel them at the last minute.

Just as a person who recovers from serious illness is forever changed by that experience, we too have also been irrevocably changed.  We will not be going back to exactly the way things were before March of 2020, rather we will chart a course through an unknown future.  While we will hold onto many of the things from the “before” time, we are also creating new ways to bring community together, and we will hold onto what we have learned over the last 13 months as we figure out who and how to become in the “post” or “after” time.

Even though reentry might be glitchy, there might be moments that feel strange and a bit uncomfortable, we will figure it out – we are figuring it out; we are learning how to move forward.  And we are learning as a community.  There are committees of lay-leaders and professionals working together.  We are consulting other organizations and houses of worship to learn best practices.  We will be asking for your feedback as we step into this next stage, and we ask for your patience and open heart as we try, make mistakes, and try again.

In the Torah portion, the person returning bathes and offers a sacrifice.  Today, let us join together in reciting the Shehechiyanu.  For some, this is the first time that you are physically at Beth David in well over a year. And for all of us, this is the first time we have merged Zoom participation with in-person participation, enabling our community to come together.

Let us take a moment to offer gratitude for reaching this state.

Let us bless the beginning of our return together (unmute everyone)

Shehechiyanu v’kiyemanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh