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Parashat Tazria Metzora 5780

April 24, 2020

The Torah and Social Distancing
A D’var Torah for Parashat Tazria Metzora
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

Perhaps there has never been a better time to embrace — with open arms — a section of the Torah, which most years we tend to turn away from.

The double portion of Tazria-Metzora speaks about those bodily conditions that often make us socially and physically uncomfortable: Rashes, skin diseases, bodily purification and leprosy, to name a few.

But isn’t it remarkable, how, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, this week’s Parashah comes to life probably in a way it never has in our lifetime?

During this unprecedented time, we can’t help but marvel at how our tradition appeared concerned with public health, long before the field of medicine became a sophisticated practice.

Indeed, our tradition recognizes the importance of testing, treatment, quarantine, evaluation and re-integration as part of a communal approach to healing.

During this time of quarantine and social distancing, the connection is direct and frontal.

We are told, this week, that if a person shows symptoms of a disease the Torah terms tzara’at, the affected person should approach the Kohen – the priest — for a diagnosis.

“The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body… (and if) …it is a leprous affection, when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce them impure.” (Leviticus 13:3)

Is that such a far reach from today’s practice of diagnosis and testing?

And if the disease is confirmed, the Torah provides a remedy.

Badad yeisheiv mihutz la’mahane moshavo — “he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)

The important word here is badad — to be set apart and isolated. We are indeed fortunate that today, most of us are able to overcome our physical isolation by interacting through platforms such as Facebook, Zoom, Instagram and Facetime.

But there remain many who do not have Internet access, and perhaps feel as isolated as those in ancient times. Perhaps through our reading of this week’s Parashah, we can imagine how our ancient ancestors felt, and reach out to those who may be feeling isolated today.

During Biblical times, the period of isolation was seven days, but it was also usual for an additional seven-day healing period to be applied in case the desired effect was not achieved.

In this way, both the individual and the community were protected.

Additionally, safeguards were established so the imperfection associated with the affliction was not passed from person to person. When someone was declared tamei or impure, those items touched – garments, vessels among other objects – were also declared tamei.

The person affected was instructed to warn those around him by uttering the words tamei, tamei – impure, impure. (Leviticus 13:45)

Why twice?

The Talmud explains that the first tamei was to inform the public to pray for that person’s healing, and the other was to ensure that others did not catch the ritual impurity from them. (Talmud Mo’ed Katan 5a)

Indeed, as we cross the border between spiritual and physical affliction, is this so different from what medical experts are advising us today — to be mindful of what we touch and that which has potentially been touched by others?

Cantor Abbe Lyons published a poem this week affirming this connection between scripture and the current pandemic. She wrote:


Vast swaths of Leviticus come into new focus

Being checked by the priest if you’re symptomatic

Getting a recheck in seven days

Being self-quarantined outside the camp

Away from the public spaces

Social distancing

So perhaps this week, as we continue to weather the anxiety, uncertainty and apprehension over the coronavirus, we are provided with an opportunity to marvel at the Torah’s timeless instructions, as it concerns itself with public health.

It inspires us to perhaps double down on hand washing and social distancing, while taking extra care to be mindful of what we touch and what has been touched by others.

The person who was quarantined in ancient times was isolated at the edge of the community. Their symptoms made them, and the items they touched, off limits.

The same applies today.

The Torah inspires us this week, as it has for millennia, that in the words of the Shema, we are all connected with God and each other as “one.”

For the actions and precautions each of us takes affects others.

The Torah was mindful of this thousands of years ago, as it sought to diagnose and heal the individual while protecting the community.

Testing, social distancing, quarantining, treatment and ultimate healing. These are not concepts locked in antiquity.

These are words to live by today.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation located in Glen Cove, NY.