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"How Are You?" (Parshat Tazria Reflections)

How are you? I imagine most of us immediately want to say “I’m good”. We’re trained to do that. This common question of compassion and relationship is so often met with a behavioral response. We say “I’m good,” before we even stop to consider whether we are, indeed, good.

That is, until a pandemic hits and we all know that answer no longer suffices. “How are you?”

“Doing okay.”

“Hanging in there.”

“Started crafting, so that helps.”

“My kids are off the wall and I just try to get something done each day.”

“We’re fine, but worried about my parents”

“Not doing great, I’m pretty lonely. I have not embraced anyone in over a month.”

These are only some of the responses I have heard and read to this “How are you?” question over the past few weeks. Our typical behavioral response has broken down and we are actually sharing how we are. We are going beyond the behavioral and getting personal.

This week’s Torah portion breaks personal boundaries with every verse. Parshat Tazria focuses on all the messy aspects of the human body that we usually like to keep to ourselves. Topics like birth and menstrual discharge, seminal emissions, and, finally, a skin disease that causes sores and discoloration. This is not a Torah portion for the faint of heart.

And yet, there could not be a better Torah portion for our current situation. The Torah tells us how individuals with this skin disease must be quarantined for seven days for their health and the health of the community. Only a priest can come and check on them, seeing if the disease has faded. My sermon could end there with hardly any more explanation: stay home and stay healthy.

But our Torah gives us even more weirdness from which we can learn. As the person who has this disease enters into quarantine, they cannot be touched. They are supposed to rend their clothes, uncover their heads, cover their upper lip, and yell out to the community “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45).

Our rabbinic ancestors had trouble understanding this strange ritual. Was it not enough that this person had to be quarantined? Why must they also declare to their community, through their body and their voice, that they are “unclean”? That they are different? That they are “Not good”?

A midrash, or story, on this text relates the verse to the future destruction of the Temple. The person afflicted with the disease may be understood as a reference to the demolished Temple. That the person cannot be touched? This is similar to idolatry, which helped in the destruction and contaminates in a manner similar to the skin disease. The rent clothing? A reference to the destroyed priestly garments.  An uncovered head? A reference to The Holy One departing from the Temple Mount. Covering the upper lip? A reference to the neglect of Torah study and observance. And finally, declaring “Unclean! Unclean!” not once, but twice? A reference to both Temples; to both catastrophic destructions (Midrash Eicha Rabbati, Introduction).

This interpretation may feel far fetched, but there is meaning behind these allusions. What our ancestors saw, what they were responding to, was a broken world. They saw the person afflicted with this skin disease and saw their life breaking around them. They will go into quarantine, but will they come out? When they come out, what will that be like? What of their previous life will be broken forever? What of their previous life will be possible to rebuild?

Similarly, our ancestors looked at the brokenness in their life after the destruction of the Temple, and asked the same questions. Okay, we will adapt for now, but for how long? When we go back to our usual ways, will we know what to do? What of our previous life will be broken forever? What of our previous life will be possible to rebuild?

And we ask those questions today. How long will we be in isolation? When we come out will we know what to do? How to act? What of our previous life will be broken forever? What of our previous life will be possible to rebuild?

While there is a ton to mourn right now, while there are breaking of hearts and breaking of families, there is also some breaking that may be beneficial to hold onto in our future. What if we looked at the inflicted individual’s declaration of “Unclean” in the midst of brokenness, not as a sign of weakness or humiliation, but as a sign of strength? The inflicted individual puts their pain and their need right out in front for all to see. “I am unclean.” They declare. “I am not doing well. I am a little broken. And I am going to need help to get through this.”

The answers we have been giving to “how are you?” are similarly strong. We, too, are honestly and safely declaring, “I am not doing well. I am a little broken. And I am going to need help to get through this.” 

And those statements are great. Great, not because we are suffering, but great because we are being honest with one another. Because we are trusting people to look out for us, just as we are looking out for them. They are great because they are forcing us to break down the behavioral boundary of convincing everyone that “We’re good”. When so often we are not.

When our world begins to rebuild (which will happen!) and when we enter back into our typical life (which will happen!), may we not forget that this boundary can be broken. That we can ask, “How are you?” and really mean it. That we can answer that question with some version of “Unclean! Unclean!” and our family, friends, and community will be there to help us through our difficulty. May we keep the strength we are all exhibiting today and bring it into a less broken world in the near future.

 

Ken Yehi Ratzon

May It Be God’s Will.

 

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