Tazria-Metzora: Coming back into the camp

What did you see in the Chumash this morning while we read this Shabbat’s Torah portion Tazria-Metzora? What did you hear when you heard the words of this Torah chanted aloud on this morning in this congregation? If you think about it, Torah Reading is a complex experience.

We all heard the Hebrew words chanted aloud with the melodies of the trope, with whatever level of understanding you have of the Hebrew, and at the same time, you may have been reading along in the Hebrew, along in the English, or perhaps reading along at the or bottom of the page, or looking at the two layers of commentary at the bottom of the page in the Etz Chayim chumash, where the editors suggested looking at the person with Tzara’at through the lens of caring for those who are ill, on the mend, and returning to normal life. You may have been thinking about the other traditional understand of Tzara’at, which is an affliction caused by Lashon Ha-Ra, harmful speech. There are so many layers of understanding to our most sacred text.

This year when I read the beginning of Parshat Metzora, I did not see a person with an illness returning back to their normal routine. There is no doctor or medicine involved. And I was aware of the traditional ideas about Lashon Hara. This year I saw something else.

I just saw a human being, a metzora, sitting outside the camp, someone who has been living at a distance from the camp for some time. I’m not sure how long they have been there, at a distance from the camp. It could be days, weeks or even years. Then, I saw another human being, a kohen, a priest, leave the camp, go out to the person living outside, and help that person return to the camp. This process is called Torat Ha-Metzorah, The Torah of the Metzora. This time around, I saw and heard about the Torah of helping people outside the camp find their way back inside.

The Eternal spoke to Moses: “This is the Torah of the Metzora, on the day they become tahor.” I like to think of tahor not as anything physical, but rather as a term that means “ready.” This is the Torah is helping someone get ready for a return.

Then the Torah says that “the person is to be brought to the kohen.” If that was the case, you might think that what happens is that someone goes outside the camp, finds the person who is ready, and just walks them back into the camp, where the remainder of the process then takes place. But that is not what happens.

Rather, it is the kohen who goes outside the camp to the place where the other person has been living in their state of semi-isolation for who knows how long.

“The kohen sees, and hinei/behold” the person is now ready to come back into the camp. The kohen comes face to face with the person outside the camp. And there is a crucial act of seeing, an act of being in the presence of the other person, of understanding, and then there is the word hinei, which in Biblical Hebrew indicates a shift in perspective. What the kohen sees in the metzora changes their perception of that person. What does the kohen see in this moment that changes their perspective? That kohen might think that they know why the metzora is outside the camp, that they know them from all those days, weeks, months or even years ago, but time has passed, and neither the metzora nor the kohen are the same person they were back then. Perhaps in the act of leaving the camp, the kohen is able to see the metzora out of context, on their own terms. Surely, the kohen would see the how that person has been living, gain some understanding of what it is like outside the camp, to live away from friends and family, and from community, or in a different community. The kohen sees that person as they are, as who they really are. The kohen understands whether or not this is a person who ready to come back into the camp or not. If someone wants to live outside the camp, that’s their choice, but this kohen sees that the person is ready to come back inside.

This is a deep act of seeing, of recognition that something has changed in the metzora, and then that changes the kohen’s understanding of the person as well.

So there they are, kohen and metzora, face to face, outside the camp, ready to come back in together.

So what do they do next?

They do something together in that moment outside the camp. The Torah describes a strange ritual, where two birds are taken, along with cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop, a type of short grass, along with fresh water and an earthen-ware vessel. One bird is slaughtered over the vessel, with the blood flowing into the water. Then everything else is dipped into the water/blood mixture, and then the kohen sprinkles that onto the metzora, and then sets the bird free. This is a strange ritual.

I want to zero in on one dimension of this ritual, namely the sharp contrast between the cedar wood, which comes from one of the tallest, strongest trees, and the hyssop, which is a short and soft grass – the largest and the smallest of the plants. For the Rabbis, the cedar, being an excess of pride, and the hyssop, being an excess of humility, balance each other out. Perhaps it is the balance of pride and humility that both the kohen and metzora need in this moment. Let’s call that balance – dignity. Each of them understand their own personal dignity as well as the dignity of the other. Both the camp is worthy of being a place to come back to, and the metzora is a person worth bringing back into the camp.

Other details aside, what the kohen and the metzora share together in this moment is doing something meaningful, something authentic, visceral, tangible, and real – a shared experience that will connect them to each other long after the moment recedes into the past. The sounds of the birds, the sight of the blood dripping into the water, the metallic tang in the nose and on the tongue, the cool drops of water and blood hitting the skin, and the sound of the second bird as its wings hit the air. What might they speak about in those moments surrounding this ritual?

Next, the metzora begins a weeklong process of becoming ready to re-enter the camp. All of their clothes are to be washed, all of their hair is shaved off, and they are to bathe in water. Then, one week later, they repeat the process of shaving, washing the clothes and bathing. Then on the eighth day, the metzora is ready to come back in to the camp.

For me, the imagery of this part of the process is clear. The person who is about to re-enter the camp becomes like a new-born child, ready for a fresh start. The waiting period of seven days evokes the seven days of Creation, while the Eighth day reminds us of the day of a Brit Milah for a newborn. This eighth day of coming back to the camp is a moment of personal renewal, and suggests that we see the former metzora like a new-born child. This period of waiting also reminds me that the process of returning to the camp is one that takes time; it is not a process to be rushed through hastily.

How do we treat a new-born child? With tenderness, love, compassion, concern, special attention, making sure that their needs are met. It is obvious to everyone that this person has just returned from time outside the camp, and hopefully signals that they are to be welcomed back with open arms.

Once they are back in the camp, the metzora is taken to the most sacred place in all the camp, the Tent of Meeting in God’s Presence, and makes a series of offerings. Standing here in the heart of the camp is the end of the metzora’s return journey. Again, there is one aspect of this ritual that stands out for me, which is the application of blood and oil onto the person’s right ear ridge, right thumb, and right big toe. This is only done with one other person, namely a kohen when they are being inaugurated into their sacred service.

For me, this placing the blood and oil on the ear says: May we hear each other, and on the thumb says: may we do good work together in this world, and on the big toe says: may we continue to walk together, side by side. Become part of us again, act with us and walk with us. It might also suggest that this person has a new role to play, or has a new perspective on people given their own recent experience. They now have a semi-priestly role to play in welcoming back others who may return to the camp in the future, in helping other people feel loved and embraced as they were when they returned.

Who is this kohen? It is each of us. After all, are we not a mamlekhet kohanim/a kingdom of priests? There is no name for this kohen in this passage; the kohen is nameless, opening up the possibility seeing ourselves in the role of kohen, this sacred work of bringing people into the community who are ready to do so. Who have you brought into the camp in your life? What was that process like for the two of you? How has what was shared between you stayed with you?

Who is this nameless metzora? Anyone. Someone far from us. Anyone who lives on the outside, on the other side, over there, or away from our daily routines. Someone disconnected. Someone who is hard to approach, for what ever the reason may be. The metzora is different for everyone. Who is your metzora? Who do you need to approach, to reach out to, to have a face-to-face encounter with, to see and understand, to shift your perspective? Like the kohen, the metzora has no name, no gender. The Torah opens up the possibility that sometimes I am the metzora, that you are the metzora, that everyone can be in the place of disconnect, of distance, of being outside the camp. When it was you, who was it that brought you back in? Who was your kohen? What of that experience has stayed with you since your return?

Where is this camp? When we are the kohen, It is our comfort zone. It is where we feel safest and most comfortable, with the people and surroundings we feel the most comfortable with, and it the place that we must be willing to leave to reach out to the metzoras in our lives, in our community and in our world. When we are the metzora, it is the place we feel distance from, perhaps the place we long to be, the place we yearn to return to, or perhaps the place we resent, feel estrangement from, and don’t know how to find our way back.

We are the mamlekhet kohanim, the kingdom of priests, and we are also the mamlekhet metzoraim, the kingdom of outsiders. One half of our sacred task is to see those who are outside of our camp, see them, understand them, to recognize when they are ready to come back in, to guide them with tenderness, love and compassion, and then to remind them that they are also kohanim, and must do the same for others.

The other half of our sacred task comes when we are the ones on the outside, to be open to the approach of another, to be strong enough to let them see us in our isolation and vulnerability, to understand us, and to let them guide us back in to the camp when we are ready, and to let them remind us that we are all a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

This is what I saw when I opened up the Torah this week, and it opened me up as well to remember that I am a kohen and that I am a metzora. This week, Parshat Metzora was my kohen, and I was a metzora, and through learning Torat Ha-Metzora, I was brought back into the camp, and stood in the Divine Presence.

Torah is not merely a book, it is not merely Divine Dictation. Torah can be understood a sacred key that can open up the human heart to what is most sacred and precious in our lives, the lives of the Jewish people and  and in the lives our all humanity.

In God we trust; to God’s holy precious essence do we sing praises. Open up my heart with Torah, and make whole what our hearts and the hearts of all of Israel, and of all the world ask of You – goodness, life and wholeness/shalom. Amen.

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