Determining Our Own Reunification Rituals

The more observant or clergy-identifying folks in our readership are about to roll their eyes hard, but it is truly incredible how often the Torah and its wise guidance match up with our current events. This week’s parsha is Tazria-Metzora. It’s actually the only portion that I feel vaguely qualified to analyze and discuss publicly because thirteen years ago, I had no choice. 

For those of you who don’t know, Tazria-Metzora is a rough parsha for a twelve-year-old bat mitzvah kid. To put it briefly, translates the chapter title as “She Bears Seed – The Infected One.” Yikes. It’s the chapter of Leviticus that gives us rules and regulations for dealing with menstruation, a whole bunch of other bodily fluids, and contagious skin ailments. I really didn’t have much besides embarrassment to contribute to the discourse 13 years ago, but today I see a core theme of quarantine and reintegration as a necessary Jewish ritual. How timely, Torah!

In Tazria-Metzora, the Torah delineates rules for separating contagious or “unclean” people from the community and then the ritual practice of bringing these individuals back into the fold. As we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also dealing with how and when to quarantine those of us who are or might be ill. For many, because we are trying to limit viral exposure in doctors’ offices or hospitals, this decision is one that we must make in our homes rather than delegating the choice to medical professionals or the kohanim of biblical times. We become the arbiters of how and when to quarantine and then, when the person has been deemed healthy or recovered, it is up to us to manage their reintegration into our households and, later, our communities. Whereas the biblical version of these rites included purification through submersion in the mikvah and a ritual involving bird sacrifice and sacred plants, we now have to determine our own reunification rituals.

Four weeks ago, my sister Eva returned to my family’s home, having traveled through Florida on her way back from graduate school in New York City. It was emotionally taxing to synthesize the barrage of conflicting recommendations. No one in our household was excited to exile the much anticipated final piece of our family unit. We decided on a loose two-week quarantine that relegated her to the upstairs floor and one distant chair in the living room. When her two weeks were up, she and my mom embarked on a detailed cleaning of all of the spaces that confined her during her quarantine. However, when Eva finally emerged from quarantine at the end of her fourteenth day, there was no true marker of the occasion for the whole family. She slipped into the kitchen to make her coffee and back into our daily rhythms with little fanfare. Her mikvah was a shower – our only sacrifice, some Clorox.

For many, the process of reintegrating families will be much more difficult and painful than mine, and the medical advice will be no more clear cut nor spiritually satisfying than it was for us. Although the specific rituals that are laid out in Tazria-Metzora are impractical for a 21st-century Jewish practice (no birds were harmed in the writing of this article), I will be interested to see how families approach unification with their loved ones and how spirituality or Judaism comes into play.

It is our Jewish imperative, time and again, to make the ordinary holy, to mark time, to observe and give weight to occasions in our lives. So whether it is with a Sh’ma, a Shehecheyanu, a glass of wine, or a Clorox wipe, I do highly encourage you to plan ahead and observe this reintegration with some sort of fanfare. It is the Jewish thing to do.