Welcome to a world of disease. This week’s double Torah portion features dozens of verses detailing skin maladies — ingrown hairs, oozing pustules, discoloration, and a whole lot more. Every year, when Tazria-Metzora rolls around, anyone in the congregation who speaks Hebrew grimaces.
The first quarter of 2021 has wrapped up, and we’re living in a world of disease, too. When I was reading the portion this week, I was both grossed out and a little disappointed. I’m so tired of writing about COVID-19, but it seemed like the obvious thing to do. How could I not focus on the coronavirus, when the Torah literally speaks about social distancing multiple times during this portion?
Pretty easily, it turns out. These verses of Torah delve into the various ailments that can be acquired, and their matching remedies, but they also bring up a common theme again and again: quarantine.
In other words, the verses are describing when a person should interact with the community and when they should take a step back for everyone’s good. Sometimes the step back lasts for several days and includes washing clothes or shaving hair. Sometimes all the clothes a sick person has worn must be cleansed, as well as their bedding. Each case stands alone, but they all have a solution that’s equally based on faith in the power of the priesthood and practical steps towards cleanliness.
Sometimes I wish all things in life had a clean-cut solution. So much of parenthood is guesswork; just when you think you have a handle on things it all changes. It’s like a video game that shifts levels without telling the players. You’re just supposed to guess, or something.
Our household’s new level has to do with new sounds and fears. My previously fearless toddler, who will happily throw himself down the big slide faster than I can climb up, is suddenly afraid of big noises. Our Brooklyn home is basically made of Swiss cheese and hope, so we hear everything our neighbors do. I know what piece the kids upstairs are practicing on the piano, when they have guests, and when they’re roughhousing. We don’t mind, and neither did our kiddo, until a week or so ago.
All of a sudden, he clings to my wife and I and says “boom-boom,” his little lip trembling whenever he hears a new noise. This doesn’t just happen when the neighbors are practicing Capoeira, either. Today, at lunch, he was idly kicking our table (which makes a noise) and his eyes got big. “Boom-boom!” he said, and hugged me. “The boom-boom is your foot,” my wife pointed out, and he relaxed.
This new level of parenthood is pretty heartbreaking. My wife and I can’t explain the bigness of the world to him, and I can’t make it smaller. All we can do is explain each new noise as it occurs, over and over, and show our kiddo that everything is alright. The construction crew next door, the vacuum cleaner, the rumbling of a motorcycle zooming by — they all need their moment of explanation and assurance.
I have a lot of thoughts about this portion, but what stood out to me most was the idea that it’s ok not to engage in society if that engagement feels overwhelming, even scary. A smart person suggested to me that the noises may be happening too loudly, or too suddenly, for our little one. Doesn’t that happen to us adults, as well?
I think that, if we’re really honest, we all have moments when being a part of the public is all too much for us. I’ve certainly wished, more than once, that the world was quieter. My toddler externalizes this feeling by pulling back and asking for the reassurance he needs to keep going. Adults, on the other hand, are encouraged to push through or deal with it. Sure, it’s a lot to take a week off every time you feel overwhelmed, but we could all do a little more healthy regulating. I think we’d be a lot better off for it.
What if, instead of trying to fix this problem for our kid, we just inhabited these feelings and tried to learn from it, as a family? What if we learned how to take a step back, a cleansing breath, and an embrace (figurative or otherwise) before moving on?
As I write these words, I realize that they come from a place of privilege. Due to the way in which our society is structured, so many folks don’t have the ability to take a beat in the middle of a workday. Nonetheless, I don’t think that this idea is naive. On the contrary, I think it’s another sign that we need to change society to allow people to care for themselves. A community that demands that we ignore our pleading psyches and push through overwhelming situations is one that doesn’t care for the health, mental and physical, of its members.
The verses in the Torah are wise — they demand that we take the wellness of all community members into account when caring for one ill person. The leper is called to step outside of the camp in order to get healthy, but also to care for others. The same can be said of listening to our beating hearts when the world gets to be too much. When we don’t push ourselves to the breaking point we’re caring for ourselves, but also for all of those who rely on us. Wouldn’t it be great if our whole community saw this as a group priority, the way the Israelites are commanded to do in these verses?