Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Read through the whole of Tazria. Don’t read for the detail of what we no longer have to do, rather read quickly through the list of actions performed by the priests in their time. Imagine Tazria as a job description for a disease control officer in a public health clinic where there are no phone or internet bookings and everyone comes to stand in line without an appointment.
There was already a triage system for management of disputes, following the system of delegation which Moses’s father in law Yitro instituted to lighten the load on Moshe. But for matters of health management and issues of ritual purity, the task fell to the priests, themselves a cadre whose life was somewhat isolated from the close contagion in the event of a malady making its way through a large population living in very close proximity. Serving God and the people, they were in a position to take note of all those who brought forth their offerings following each major life event, including childbirth and ensure that the donor was in full health and that nothing would be transferred to imperil the health of others.
Preventing another unhealthy contagion, an “epidemic” of idolatrous fear, was the task of the priests. The irony is not to be missed: it was Aharon who was not able to prevent the mass panic which resulted in that first idolatry, which sullied the arrival of the revelatory Decalogue. The task of the priests would forever ensure compliance with the worship of the one God and the fitness of the nation for God’s service.
During a week when the events in Crimea put us in mind of the work of Florence Nightingale, who between 1854 and 1856 brought order to the health catastrophe associated with military field hospitals of the Crimean War, there are some linkages to our portion. Nightingale’s nurses worked hard to control infection through a regimen of cleaning; cleaning patients, cleaning operating theatres, cleaning the surgical instruments such as they were, cleaning the linens and aprons of the surgeons. Under the supervision of her nurses, bed linens and bandages were scrubbed and boiled by the women folk who accompanied the men of the armies into battle. They were paid to do the unpleasant work. As an analogy to the structure references in this week’s Torah portion, Nightingale was the “high priest”, her nurses were the “priests” and the paid women executed the regime of infection control and household management.
Connecting the work of the original priests to the receipt of animals and produce for historic sacrifices, the slaughter of animals, the butchering of their carcasses, removal of debris and cooking of the remainder, the job description is that of slaughter-man and butcher. We might find it hard to imagine the task of assisting new mothers with their post-partum challenges being handled by a butcher, as the means of returning them to their routines, but that was the ritual. Connecting the work of those priests to the inspection of symptoms of contagion on bodies and dwellings, the job description is more one of disease control diagnostician, isolation enforcement officer, dermatologist, laundry supervisor or treatment coordinator.
These are not the sublime tasks of a spiritual calling. They are the most mundane and in some instances extremely challenging jobs to have to do. Never mind that the people had to come and present their secret skin lesions and sores to the scrutiny of a priest, but there was no external second opinion! Off you went into isolation and the seclusion went on if your diagnosing priest didn’t like the look of you.
Our society values physical beauty so highly it has created a huge industry around body size and shape, fashion and cosmetics etc. Advertising confirms that only beautiful people live in beautiful homes with beautiful children and there is never a speck of dirt or mess anywhere. Every kind of product is available to soak away the dirt of life, the tough stains, the embarrassing proof that life is a messy business.
In bible times, there were no Bio-ads or Nappy Sans; there were no extra-long washing machine cycles, no isolation wards to help contain epidemics of various kinds. Rather, there were priests with public authority who had their own version of the ‘contagious diseases manual’ and wielded the authority of their office to ensure that the people were healthy and a community of individuals fit to approach God to give thanks for their blessings of life, freedom, home, family and each new generation born without the taint of slavery. With Purim concluded, we turn our attention to Pesach and begin the process of purifying ourselves and our homes for the reenactment of that privilege of symbolic renewal. We must ourselves be ‘A sovereignty of priests for a holy nation … and speak that holiness to our children’ (Adapted from Ex 19:6).