Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thou Shalt be QUARANTINED!

Parshat Tazria
Leviticus 12:1-13:59
5771 Adar II 27 / April 1-2, 2011

Thou Shalt be QUARANTINED!
by David Rosen, Moishe House Hoboken

The subject of this week’s Parashat Tazria has to do with the idea of purity and cleanliness, specifically with regard to childbirth, bodily discharges, and certain skin ailments. In the first part of this parasha, God speaks to Moses and commands that upon the birth of a boy, the mother remains in a state of impurity for 7 days, and upon the birth of a girl, the mother remains in a state of impurity for 2 weeks. People were also declared ritually impure by the high priest upon exhibition of skin diseases such as leprosy and during a woman’s menstrual cycle. When declared to be impure, a person must remain outside the Israelite camp for a prescribed amount of time and purify themselves by means of a mikveh, ritual bath, before they may reenter the camp.

There are a few Jewish ideas that come from the reading of this Parasha. The first is the institution of circumcision for newborn Jewish baby boys, which serves as a reminder of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. The next is the idea of lashon harah, or bad language, commonly taken to mean slander, gossip, speaking unkindly about someone behind their back. Lashon harah comes about when people were punished with leprosy because they spoke unkindly about someone or God. There is a specific incidence, recorded in a later parasha, when Moses’ sister Miriam is stricken when she attacked Moses’ wife for being a Cushite.

Aside from the implications that speaking unkindly leads to skin diseases, one of the main things I wonder about when reading this portion is why there is a need for separation from the community. What is the purpose of separation and who does it benefit more?

First, when discussing skin rashes and irritations, there are the obvious health benefits of separation so that whatever the afflictions are, they don’t spread. I don’t know what medicine was like back then when the Israelites were wandering through the desert, but I’m pretty certain there wasn’t a local pharmacy around that one could go to for analgesic cream. Instead though, if you read the portion, the idea of separating someone from the community was less health based, and more spiritual based, as the one who declared if separation was needed was the high priest. So what are the spiritual concerns then?

Surely skin rashes don’t spread by means of spirituality. So what does it mean to be spiritually impure? According to the torah, one who is spiritually unclean is forbidden to take part in holy acts or customs, such as entering the tabernacle or holy court. But for me it goes beyond that. For me, being spiritually unclean has to do with, not only a person’s physical state, but with their mental and emotional states as well. If you put yourself in the place of someone who has a skin ailment, or have ever been in that place yourself, how would you act around other people? It would change your normal behavior around other people, make you self-conscious, and possibly force you to lie about your condition if you tried to play it off as it not being as bad as it actually is. I’m sure you would want to try to hide your condition too as best as possible so as to not endure ridicule or social mockery.

Additionally, if you think about the knowledge of medicine they had at the time, they probably didn’t know if something was contagious or not, and a person might not take as much care as needed to prevent it from spreading. Think about what would happen if it did spread? As if there wasn’t enough complaining from the people, do you think Moses wanted to hear about sand getting into open blisters?

All kidding aside, when someone is stricken with any kind of debilitating ailment, it changes that person, how they act around others and how others act around them. The effects of being a social outcast can sometimes last longer than the physical effects of a skin ailment. So in this case, perhaps separation from the community is the wisest thing to do. It allows the person stricken to recuperate without facing ridicule or scorn from others, gives them time to be alone and not worry about spreading it around, and overall it protects the whole community. Don’t you feel better when you know someone is sick and decided to stay home, rather than trying to stick it out and risk the health of everyone else?

In conclusion, separation from the community is not always a bad thing, or seen as punishment. In these situations, it’s better for the community and the individual. The time away will allow the person to heal up and get better, and also recover from any mental or emotional harm that may have been done. Rejoining the community after recuperating also lets everyone know that you are better and there is nothing to worry about, or as the Torah would put it, you are clean again.


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