This week's portion: like God
Notes from the field

Health -- and connection with God (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Tazria-Metzorah is upon us again, and with it, descriptions of rashes, discolorations, and affections of the skin which render a person tamei.

One of my teachers talks about taharah and tumah in terms of the ability, or lack of ability, to be close to God. In the days of the Temple, the various experiences which rendered one tamei (including birth, menstruation, sickness, and contact with death) prevented one from approaching the place where the Presence was understood to dwell. A priest was required to judge whether or not the tumah was contagious, or was under control, or had abated enough that the person could re-enter holy space.

I used to read this all prescriptively. As in, these words aimed to tell us what to do and what not to do. In that sense, it's pretty foreign to me, for a variety of reasons. But lately, I've been reading it more descriptively -- as a text which describes something about our limitations and our possibilities. And when I read it that way, it resonates in some interesting ways for me.

I remember one weekend last year when I had been tasked with leading services at my shul, and I was unwell. My affliction wasn't serious -- an allergic reaction to a drug I had thought I could comfortably take -- but it laid me low for several days. When Shabbat rolled around, I dragged myself to the synagogue and managed somehow to remain upright at the front of the room. My rabbi -- on sabbatical, but in town that particular week -- sat in the back of the sanctuary, and knowing that I was ill, sang with particular gusto. I remember clinging to his voice like a lifeline.

I learned that weekend, in an unmistakeable and embodied way, that being sick can keep me at a distance from my community and from God. I couldn't imagine my own prayers reaching God that week, much less carrying the prayers of the kahal (community) aloft. I felt so mired in the discomforts of my body that I couldn't reach out with any kind of kavvanah. All I could do was shape the words, and hope that -- as in the Hasidic folktale about the shepherd boy playing his flute -- the sounds would be enough. In terms of avodah she-ba-lev, the service of the heart, my offering of self felt blemished. Because feeling unwell had diminished me, I didn't feel fully present. I was distracted. I couldn't find God.

The following Shabbat, I marveled at how different it felt to enter into prayer and song as a person who was healthy and whole. When I read this week's portion, especially the description of the various skin conditions and affections which render a person tamei and unable to approach the presence of God, I remember the stark difference between trying to pray when my body wasn't working, and succeeding in prayer when my body was comfortable. There's definitely something about certain forms of sickness which make God seem especially far away.

In today's world I present myself not to a priest, but to a doctor, to determine whether everything in my body is as it should be. It's not always a comfortable process; sometimes I'm anxious about what I'll hear. But that anxiety, too, keeps me from God -- and the ability to ask an authority figure about how I'm doing absolves me of the need to make that determination on my own. Today's Torah portion highlights that process and allows me to feel kinship with our ancestors. Though they followed a different process, they understood some deep truths about embodiment and relationship and God.

On a broader level, looking beyond the confines of my own skin, this portion drives me to consider an interpersonal question: how do we treat those in our community who are ill? Especially those with conditions which distress us, which remind us visibly and viscerally of our own fragility? I know from my own experience that being ill can distance me from others and from my sense of connection with God. Do I create that feeling of helpless distance for others, by turning away from those who are sick and in need?

The second half of our Torah portion details how a person with leprosy can be cleansed. The process described in Metzorah involves cedar wood and fresh blood and hyssop; shaving and washing of the patient; and eventually the sacrifice of two male lambs and a ewe without blemish. But if the leper is poor, Torah tells us, and his means are insufficient for the sacrifice that's been so lovingly detailed, he can offer a single lamb and a couple of pigeons instead. (Presumably in those days, pigeons could be purchased on the cheap.)

What do we ask those who are ill to pay in order to receive the services which will purify and heal them today? Do we sufficiently support programs which enable low-income people and families to get the care they need -- or do we prefer to keep those who remind us of fear and impurity on the margins where we won't be discomfited? As you study this week's portion, take a moment to donate what you can to an organization like Ecu-Health Care in your own community, or to the American Cancer Society to subsidize low-cost mammograms for women who can't afford to otherwise be screened -- or to a local hospital / healthcare charity of your choice.

Whatever we're doing in this regard, I can pretty much guarantee it isn't enough. This week's portion calls us to remember how illness can keep us distant from God -- and to do what we can to ensure that no one is kept out of the divine Presence because they can't afford the healing they need.