By Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis
To a devout Jew, and, even more so a rabbi, all parashiyot are equal. Torah always has something to say to us. But, to paraphrase George Orwell, some Torah portions are more equal than others. And, by implication, some are less equal than others.
Such is the fate of our (double) portion this week, Tazria-Metzora. These verses are tough for the modern Jew. The topic is disturbing AND alien — skin diseases. The root of the word “disease” is pretty clear — “dis-ease” — something that pushes us away from ease. No doubt, the word was coined in response to how the afflicted person feels. But with skin diseases, that uneasiness is shared by the observer. My father, z”l, suffered the heartbreak of plaque psoriasis. As child, I remember the lack of ease I felt when I saw the large, scaly patches on his back and legs.
So, I can relate to the literal content of the portion. But that’s not true of most people — which creates the second issue: It’s alien to us; few know people with serious skin diseases anymore, and virtually none caused by infectious diseases or parasites, as described in the Torah. As a society, we are mostly past that. This twofold aspect of our twofold portion, ickiness and remoteness, make these portions hard to relate to.
Yet, as one of my teachers (sorry, I forget who) said, “We read Torah over and over again, not because the text changes, but because we do.” So, for the first time (really the second) in our lifetime, the literal subject of our double portion, infectious disease, is both timely and relevant.
Much of the portion — diagnosis, contagion, isolation, when and how to return to normal life — neatly fits our present situation. The portion commands, “The upper lip should be covered over” (even alluding to the wearing of masks!). The directives, then and now, are so particular and specific, we can identify with the portion without having to resort to metaphor. But metaphor never really goes out of fashion, when it comes to Torah.
This is especially true when we look at the second portion, Metzora, which focuses on the tzaraat of houses. “House” here makes an easy metaphor for “society” or “nation.” — especially when our second portion discusses reassembling a “house” that has been afflicted. And here we are, grappling and grasping for how to reassemble our “house,” our society, as the crisis recedes. It’s not just questions of how we, as individuals, reintegrate into society, but how we reintegrate society in its entirety — the economy, the public sphere and the political fractures.
Emotionally we want to go back and “return to normal” — we want this so badly. But maybe returning to the status quo ante (that’s Latin for “how things were before”) is not enough.
We have become aware of so much we didn’t pay much attention to, before the pandemic — our most “essential workers” are often the most poorly compensated; a pandemic is bad for all when some lack access to health care; hospitals have few spare beds and few medical reserves, because they are organized around profitability rather than maximal service — so perhaps much is not the way they should be. When the tide goes out, we’ve been confronted with who and what has been swimming naked, barely treading water, all along, in a way we didn’t see when people and things just flowed by.
In our sacred calendar, this is the time of sefirat haOmer, literally measuring and assessing the barley harvest in the weeks before Shavuot. Since few of us raise barley anymore, we have metaphorized that ritual, as well. Now we measure and assess our middot, our personal traits, and strive to improve our character. Perhaps this year, we should do the same for our “house.” What needs to be improved? What steps should we take to better the character of our nation? How do we become more compassionate, generous, just and fair?
This year, a unique literal-metaphor nexus is happening in our Torah that we would be foolish to ignore. Come next spring, let us find ourselves restored, but also a little better than in the past.
Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Denton County, a police chaplain and, until COVID-19 struck, an instructor at the University of North Texas.