I will always remember this week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora, with a certain amount of fondness. Not particularly because of the subject matter, which is ritual impurity and skin afflictions, but because of who I associate it with. In my first pulpit, serving Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, one of the regulars at Torah study was Dr. Morris Polsky, of blessed memory. Every week, he gave a d’var haftarah, but for this week’s Torah portion, he spoke on the Torah portion itself. He was, after all, a retired dermatologist and skin disease as a subject matter appealed to him.
The truth is, however, tzara’at wasn’t a disease that Dr. Polsky would have been able to treat even if he had ever come across it. Tzara’at was a skin affliction that caused the skin to look scaly and white and one of the most famous cases of tzara’at takes place in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12. In that section of the Torah, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses and God afflicts Miriam with tzara’at. The rabbis draw a connection between gossip, which Miriam and Aaron were engaged in, and tzara’at through the Hebrew for a person afflicted with tzara’at, a metzora. A person afflicted with tzara’at, a metzora, will motzi shem ra, bring out a bad name, i.e., gossip, and the affliction is the punishment. But it’s not a disease. Tzara’at can’t be a disease because both cloth and houses can also be afflicted with tzara’at.
Tzara’at was looked on as a Divine punishment and no disease is a punishment for sin. You don’t get diabetes because you sinned against God. You don’t get cancer as a punishment for something you’ve done. Nobody is getting COVID-19 because God wants them to get it.
What I do find interesting is what happened when a person was found with tzara’at. The person afflicted with tzara’at would present themselves to the priest, who would examine their skin, and if the priest determined that it was indeed tzara’at, the person would be declared impure and be isolated for seven days. After seven days, the priest would again examine the person to see if the tzara’at cleared up and if not, they would be isolated for another seven days. Fourteen days in isolation. Sound familiar? The state of ritual impurity was believed to be communicable, to be passed from person to person, which is why those who were impure with an affliction of tzara’at had to be kept isolated to protect those who were not afflicted. Sound familiar?
What we are experiencing right now as we shelter at home, is difficult and painful and harsh. But, we are making these sacrifices as a society to save lives. We are helping to save lives among those who suffer from compromised immune systems. We are helping to save lives among the elderly members of our community. We are helping to save lives among the young people who were just unlucky enough to suffer a severe case. But together, with our joint sacrifice, we can save lives.
In these difficult times, know that the sacrifices we make, we make to save lives.
In these difficult times be generous. Be generous to the business owner who is experiencing the loss of all they worked for and to the workers who have lost their jobs and face extraordinary financial hardship. Be generous, spreading out the sacrifices and helping to bear their burden.
In these difficult times be kind, because the world is always better when people are kind to each other.
In these difficult times remember, there will be an end and we will not do this forever.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.