Shabbat Metzora

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum during the April 8 Shabbat Evening Service.

Shabbat shalom, everyone. It’s wonderful to be here tonight in our Mandel Sanctuary with those of you who are here in person, and all of you joining us online. I know you’ve heard us clergy say it often in these last two years, but we really do feel you with us, even though you’re not here in the room. So, thanks for being part of our Shabbat community tonight!

It’s a strange but wonderful thing to hold people close, even when they’re physically distant. In so many ways, these last two years of the pandemic have been characterized by isolation and boundaries. Social distancing signage has become commonplace, with signs and arrows indicating the recommended six feet of space between people still hung catawampus on walls,  and the social distancing sticker residue ghosts still haunt the floors of many office spaces and coffee shop queues.

In these days of Covid-19, it has become clear our ability to feel freely close, to be physically connected, is something we can’t take for granted. Even as we think about quarantining and isolation guidelines, we know that sometimes the most important way we can keep our loved ones close, and to protect them, is to take time apart to heal.

We find ourselves in a healing-focused section of our Torah. In the book of Leviticus, we see how the ancient priests were highly focused on creating and maintaining boundaries. In Hebrew, the word kadosh, holy, also means consecrated, distinct, set aside, and separate. The priests’ responsibilities included keeping that which is holy set aside from anything that could compromise that holiness. In some cases, that meant that our priests would keep items that were impure out of sacred spaces like the sanctuary or the altar. But in other cases, that meant keeping people who were, for whatever reason, ritually ineligible from contact with the distinctly holy, for anything set aside for God. This had a great impact on ancient Israelite society. Being diagnosed as impure meant that an Israelite could not participate in the ritual life of the community. As we read the Torah, we see a group of people striving to draw near to God. Even the offerings and sacrifices they made give us a clue: a ritual offering was called a korban, a word that shares its root letters with karov, means “close.”

So, we have a group of people trying to draw near to God, offering korbanot, sacrifices meant to bring them closer to the divine, by bringing those offerings to the priests, whose responsibility it was to keep everything kadosh, holy, distinct from that which was profane, mundane, impure.

In this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, we read about how the priests of the ancient Israelites would assess the case of one stricken with tzara’at, a scaly affection we sometimes translate to leprosy. From this understanding of the priestly focus on boundaries, we come to see why tzara’at, a scaly affliction that results in white scabs or scales breaking the boundary of human skin, would be of concern to the priests. Once a person was diagnosed with tzara’at by a priest, that person would have to physically separate from the community for a period of quarantine.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read:

זֹ֤את תִּֽהְיֶה֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת הַמְּצֹרָ֔ע בְּי֖וֹם טהֳרָת֑וֹ וְהוּבָ֖א אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃

(2) This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time of being purified. When it has been reported to the priest, (3) the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the one with tzara’at  has been healed of the scaly affection, (4) the priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified….[one bird will be slaughtered, and the live bird the priest shall set] free in the open country….and then the metzora shall be pure.

Following the period of quarantine, there was a ritual that enabled the person with tzara’at to re-enter the community, beginning with the priest visiting the isolated person. There was a sacred mechanism in place that marked the graded transition of a person from a status of impure to pure.

Dr. Rachel Havrelock[1] teaches about this transition. She writes, “By moving from a state of ritual impurity to one of ritual purity, the ever-changing human body serves as the index for the transformation of identity…The spectrum between the pure and impure becomes apparent in the gradations of being outside the camp, then inside the camp but outside one’s tent, and finally inside the community and inside the home. That the ritually impure state is transitional becomes apparent in the time-bound nature of each stage. The body passes through the various stages and is likely to cross several borders between ritually pure and impure over the course of its existence.

As the body undergoes the permutations of ritual purity and impurity, the impure body is sometimes exiled–but not abandoned to its exile. The appearance of a priest outside the camp (14:3) signals that exile is ephemeral and that restoration will begin. No particular priestly category fixes the body, but rather it moves through a full range of categories. This sense of the body as changeable and the potential reversibility of its status are what underlie prophetic notions that sinful actions can be retracted and a dire fate averted.”

This is so powerful, because it makes clear the truth we all know to be deeply true: bodies change with time, with life. The beauty of what we often read as a list of restrictions and boundaries, these laws of the metzora, are, at their essence, a way to draw our attention to the holiness of change. And, because of the many boundaries and transitions we make throughout our lives living in our bodies, there are many ritual opportunities to mark those transitions with some sacred, ritual element, some way of drawing near to community and to God.

The temporary exile of the one with tzara’at is paired with the ritual re-entry into the community. This pairing is a recognition of the holiness of community. Just like the sacred spaces of the sanctuary and altar, the priests protected the boundaries of the community. Those temporarily exiled to quarantine eventually emerged, redeemed to return to the fold.

I’m returning to Dr. Havrelock for a moment. She teaches, “Focus on the body emphasizes the changes undergone by the self in the process of becoming another self…When the sick are healed, their bodies bear the proof. Yet one’s body is not only an indicator of change but also a vessel of memory. Illness and trauma are remembered by nerves, muscles, and scars. The body that gives birth will forever maintain a link with its offspring. The body attests to change as well as to the indelibility of experience.”

It happens that we read Parashat Metzora this year on this special Shabbat, Shabbat hagadol, the last Shabbat before Passover begins. In just a week, we’ll sit at our Seder tables, some at large gatherings, and some once more alone for Seder. We’ll open the frayed pages of haggadot and retell the story our people have told for generations: the story of our people’s redemption.

The story of the Exodus is, in so many ways, a story of the birth of our people.  Dr. Ilana Pardes considers our people’s pathway to redemption as our birth story. She teaches, “The Israelites are delivered collectively out of the womb of Egypt. National birth, much like individual births… takes place on a delicate border between life and death…God performs a variety of wonders in Egypt (the ten plagues in fact are perceived as such), but the parting of the Red Sea seems to surpass them all. It marks the nation’s first breath—out in the open air—and serves as a distinct reminder of the miraculous character of the birth. Where there was nothing, a living creature emerges all of a sudden….The two enormous walls of water, the ultimate breaking of the waters, and the exciting appearance of dry land all seem to represent … a birth that is analogous to the creation of the world.”[2]

As our people are redeemed from slavery in Egypt, they move from enslaved service to Pharaoh to sacred service to God. As they emerge from the canal of the Red Sea, they enter their new reality, a new people, a new body. But the experiences they endured in Egypt are like scars on their body. They might be free, but they carry forth their former lives, the memories embodied.

There is great holiness in that. And as the recipients of our inherited traditions, when we read the story of the Exodus at Passover, we see ourselves in the narrative. Their story is our story. The memories they embodied are the ones we feel connected to in our hearts–though the experience has faded across the generations, the memory is as vibrant and connective as ever.

And so, we bring our imaginations from the days of the ancient Hebrews, the generation that left Egypt and the ones who worshiped God in the desert with rituals facilitated by the priests, and we return to today.

As we approach our festival of Passover, I find myself daydreaming about unleavened recipes and favorite family traditions. It feels absurd, sometimes, because those daydreams get interrupted by reality. Terrorism in Tel Aviv, war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic…it seems frivolous to be focusing on which desert to make for Seder. It’s a tension we hold every day: finding joy in the face of true challenges in our world. It reminds me of our ancestors walking bravely between two walls of water, across the narrow threshold between exile and redemption.

That threshold is a holy space. Like those ancient Israelites with tzara’at, we move across the gradations of sacredness and the mundane, between exile and redemption. And, like the Hebrews moving through the walls of water, we make these steps with our community. Whether we are seated beside each other in the pews, whether we join together online or in person–we hold each member of our community near as we strive to move ever closer to healing and holiness.

I’ll close this evening with a poem by Rachel Kann called “Exile and Redemption”:

Exile and Redemption[3]

If it seems like everything’s shattering,

That’s because it is.

We’ve arrived at this particular moment of crisis

Precisely to be

Called to our highest.

This struggle is our undoing

And this uncovering

Is breaking forth

The awakening of our spiritual ancestors

And successors,

Extending endlessly in both directions,

Our supernal lineage gathered

Through collective intention.

To hold is to conceal, yet

We are meant

To create vessels

That enable

Incremental revelation.

Imagine Eden, ablaze,

Spilling with radiance,

No space for revelation–

How to hold a candle

Against a backdrop of

Infinite spilling light?

We are built of mud and dust and blood and water,

Of lust, thunder, questions and wonder, of

Internal fertile-walled whispers.

Exile and redemption:


By barely a breath.

[1]  Torah: A Women’s Commentary, page 672

[2] Dr. Ilana Pardes via Dr. Orit Avnery. From Dr. Ilana Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible pages 26ff

[3] How to Bless the New Moon, 54