I was randomly assigned to do this drash for my community, Kolot Chayeinu, and it turned out to be both the best and the worst parsha for me to contemplate right now, as I am in the process of cleaning up and out of my home of 22 years so I can sell it not out of choice but out of necessity. This cleaning is both a burden and a purification, and it begins a separation that in the end will be helpful and maybe even fantastic but that right now is very sad for me. But sometimes the body must be taken care of before the spirit so it can approach the metaphorical mishkan. So--
Tazria is short and divided into three sections, all of which are about how to purify something or someone when you or it is tameh, that is, impure and unclean.
The first part is about the customs necessary to a woman after she has given birth. The second, and longest section, is about how the high priest must diagnose that someone has a skin disease of some kind, when one’s skin is tame, impure, commonly translated as leprosy but sounding more like really bad psoriasis that also makes your skin turn white. The third part is about how cloth or leather can become unclean or has become impure, which in the translation I read sounds like the cloth has gotten a disease, an affliction, which sounds absurd, but which the rabbis interpreted to mean some kind of mold or fungus.
And then of course, in all instances there are rituals for making the impure, pure, the unclean, clean.
In the parsha, unclean appears to be anything that touches body fluids, anything that oozed and it is assumed that these fluids were associated with death and anything that touched anything associated with death could not approach the Mishkan and thus could not receive expiation through temple sacrifice, through the cult practices of the Mishkan and later, the temple.
To my modern ears, at first glance this all appears rather ridiculous. A woman has a baby and that makes her unclean? Be fruitful and multiply? How do you multiply without childbirth? I reject that utterly. And, it turns out, the rabbis did, too.
Nehama Leibowitz sums up their thinking,
“The new life within her, the mother, made her deeply conscious of the greatness of the Creator and at the same time of her insignificance and the dust, ashes and impurity of man’s origins and for this reason she brought a sin-offering.
I can accept that. She is mindful of how awesome and spectacular the birth was, and she places herself, humbly in that continuum.
In the second case, that of the skin disease, the rabbis decided that the sufferer must have been guilty of the sin of gossip, lashon hara, the evil tongue (a sin with which I more than intimately acquainted with, that and a life long mild case of psoriasis…). This sin can be so destructive that the sinner must be marked by God with skin disease, declared unclean and separated out, forced to live in a tent outside the community. And you don’t need to guess when the gossiper has repented, you’ll know when the skin heals.
More significant to me, is that all three prescribed rituals to clean the unclean, the ones for having had a child, for having a skin disease and for having moldy clothes, all demand, at some point, the separation from the community of the impure component—the recent mother, the afflicted sufferer, the disgusting cloth.
Why must they separate from the community?
Modern commentators talk a lot about Shabbat when they write about this parsha. The separation that each act of ritual cleansing demands is not unlike the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. Shabbat separates us from time, from the past with all our mistakes and the future with the likelihood of many more. The bloody necessities of birth, the sad disabilities of illness, the inevitability of decay and death, those are behind or in front of us but they are not now. Today, on Shabbat, I am in community and conversation with God however I understand that today. Today on Shabbat, sadness, stasis, spiritual desolation, depression, alienation and death are put aside and I am kadosh.
Rabbi Shefa Gold writes,
Often, a person's growth happens on the inside before it manifests in the outer world. The spiritual challenge lies in navigating this awkward time of dissonance between inner and outer. During this time the two realities must be reconciled. It is an uncomfortable time because there is a tendency to resist change and that resistance can manifest in the physical body. Retreat time is required in order to attend to and integrate the inner changes. The spiritual challenge of Tazria/Metzora is to know when to separate yourself from the community and to know how to return.
There is no absolute purity. Today, on Shabbat, there is only the process of seeking purity, of seeking wholeness. That is what tefillah, Gemilut Hasidim v’tikkun olam are, I think. Through prayer and acts of loving kindness and repair of the world we seek and sometimes attain connection. Together we welcome new lives, wash our soiled clothes and comfort each other in times of affliction. The word Shalom means Hello, Good-bye, Peace and it also mean whole, complete.
So, I wish you all a full, whole, repairing, sanctifying, expiated completed and peaceful Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom.