Contagion is Universal

Contagion is Universal

Parashat Tazria – with questions of contagion, quarantine, and isolation – has become much more real and relevant over the last two years. No longer are they just abstract metaphors or spiritual interpretations, but highlight how we can prevent contagious diseases from spreading.

Yet as with all plagues, we tend to link moral and ritual purity and often stigmatize those who catch the disease. From HIV to Covid to smallpox, when someone falls ill with a contagious disease, our immediate natural inclination is to protect ourselves from it. Rather than feeling compassionate and extending a hand to reach out, our “contagion detection module” will simply say that the person was careless, had an ethical failing, or brought it on themselves. We isolate the afflicted person not just because of the disease, but also because of what it represents.

That’s why two verses towards the end of this portion are so striking and challenging to read. In Leviticus 13:43-44, the Torah says:

As for the person with a leprous affection: the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, “Impure! Impure!” The person shall be impure as long as the disease is present. Being impure, that person shall dwell apart–in a dwelling outside the camp.

Even though the priest is the one who would diagnose the skin disease (the tzara’at), it was the obligation of the afflicted person to publicly announce the diagnosis. On one level, this feels cruel. This person is already physically experiencing symptoms and forced to be isolated from their community, and now they had to publicly share that they were tamei, “impure”?

But rather than normalizing the victim-blaming, Rabbi Avi Strausberg invites us to rethink the value of destigmatizing illness.

[T]his text can teach us two things. First, it’s an invitation, when we feel safe, to invite people in and to call out for help when we need it. People can’t show up if we don’t let them know we need help. Second, it calls on us as a community to create an environment in which people feel safe to ask for help and it obligates us to show up for people when they do cry out.

Indeed, everyone gets sick in some way in their lives. Not only that, contagious diseases, by definition, are very easy to spread. Yes, we want to avoid the spread of plagues. But one of the most misunderstood aspects of ritual purity is that almost everyone, at some point, will end up in the state of te’umah, impurity, just as almost everyone we know is (at most) only one degree away from knowing someone who had Covid. Recognizing that it’s both a temporary state and a universal state – and not an identity or life-long experience – can help us be more compassionate when a contagious disease does enter our home.

There’s a wonderful story (Adapted from the Buddhist original by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), about a young woman who experienced a great loss and felt so deeply alone as she struggled. A friend had a brilliant – but slightly devious – idea: she should bake something, but to use sugar only from someone who had never experienced grief or pain. As she went house to house asking for a cup of sugar, everyone said they’d be happy to share, but each person had a unique challenge: one had lost a job, another just experienced the death of a spouse, a third was dealing with chronic pain. As she returned home, she was reminded that even as her pain was both real and individual to her, everyone was struggling in their own way. Yet both the support of the community, as well as the simple passage of time, salved some of those wounds.

As we think about tzara’at, then, let us remember that we all go through stages where we will be the ones in need of help, and be willing to ask for it. And may we also remember that when others need our help, we can step up, open our homes, and share that cup of sugar that may help sweeten someone’s otherwise-bitter day.


Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he's written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter.

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