by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 20, 2020
The Torah portion of Tazria begins with a small section on the procedure to be followed pursuant to the birth of a child: “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period … On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days she shall remain in blood of purity … If she gives birth to a female, she shall be contaminated for two weeks…and for sixty-six days she shall remain in blood of purity. Upon the completion of the days of her purity for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep within its first year for a burnt-offering, and a young dove or turtledove for a sin-offering … But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves, one for a burnt-offering and one for a sin-offering.”
The aforementioned relatively small section regarding the birth of a child is immediately followed by a rather lengthy discourse extending to the end of the Torah portion of Tazria and into most of the next Torah portion of Metzora on procedures to be followed in the event of being afflicted by a condition called tzara’at. Our Sages explained that this malady had outward quite unpleasant physical symptoms that would actually result from moral defects including slanderous speech, conceit and envy towards others, where the thrust of the Torah instructions were intended to alter and turn back the seriously defective causes of its appearance (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a; see also Rashi on Vayikra 14:1-4).
Included in the instructions for one afflicted with this highly uncomfortable condition of tzara’at was his or her being isolated from the rest of society whereby, away from normal and usual distractions and preoccupations with normal daily routines, the individual, alone with his or her thoughts, can allocate the time needed for proper contemplation and introspection in an attempt to understand the unfolding of his or her current situation and its causes and one’s concomitant behavior which can, in the end, finally correct those actions and outlook that led to this affliction.
Indeed, difficulties, maladies, hardships and afflictions brought upon individuals, according to the Scriptures and Talmud, should be treated as agents for self-correction – not depression, panic or fear. When times suddenly become difficult and hardship abruptly abounds, we are not to get enveloped in fear. As the wise King Solomon taught (Mishle 3:25), “Do not fear sudden fright” or as the newly elected U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt , proclaimed during his inaugural speech the now famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Rather, one should engage in introspection and contemplation on how the hardship can help to understand how to correct one’s behavior. As our Sages instruct (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a), “If one sees that troubles are coming upon him, he should investigate his conduct, for it says [Eikha 3:40], ‘Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d.’”
Sadly, the entire world has recently been overwhelmed by a plague, or pandemic, of unprecedented proportions that has been plunging scores of individuals world-wide into the claws of ravaging illness and even taken the lives of so many. This plague has been so severe as to cause governments around the world to impose isolation of its populations and partial or total lockdowns of cities to attempt to stem the perilous tide of this pandemic. As a result, workplaces, theaters, sports arenas and even synagogues have been shut down, throwing vast populations into unemployment and virtual self-quarantine and isolation within a matter of weeks, threatening the economies of countries all over the world as well as the emotional stability of individuals virtually chained to their homes with practically nowhere to go. This calls on us, as per our Sages’ aforementioned instructions, to ponder how this horrific situation can help us correct behavioral patterns that may help persuade our Father in Heaven to turn things around.
What then can we learn from all this? How then can this entire “situation” be an opportunity to learn to better our behavior? Well, at the very least, many individuals or even societies the world over who until now have been quite lax – to put it mildly – have been prompted to engage for the first time in their lives in proper hygienic practices. Numerous people and peoples all over the world who had tended to crowd each other and virtually “breathe down the throats” of their fellow man have learned through “social distancing” to curb such habits, thereby helping to preserves the health of others and their own health. Throngs of humans previously preoccupied with their work and the pursuit of “making a living” or academic or artistic pursuits have been forced to spend much more time at home and learn to better adapt to and enjoy the company of their spouses and children. So many of us being so severely restricted for so long should help us identify better and increase our sensitivity towards so many of the elderly and infirm whose health situations have always restricted their movements but with not enough consideration given to their plights. Multitudes, as synagogues have been forced to close, are relegated to pray in isolation, without the pressures of peers who often distract from the task at hand and without being pressured to keep up with others who pray faster, have more of an opportunity to concentrate on their prayer and to think of to whom they are praying and what they are saying. Scores of individuals forced into unemployment may learn more to identify with people who through no fault of their own become unemployed and are unable to sustain themselves and their families. And, as synagogues, yeshivas and study halls are indefinitely closed, many, who can no longer rely on routine pre-defined study programs nor escape to trips or other retreats, must learn to think for themselves what to study to heighten their understanding and bond with G-d. And millions worldwide, seeing how unstable life can be, can be prompted to begin to take life’s positives and negatives into a more realistic light and, therefore, resolve to abandon some of the more deleterious modes of behavior. And, of course, hopefully, many will appreciate more the ability to visit with friends and family and view the wonders of nature in cities and towns all over the world; and, as so many wealthy and well to do individuals succumb to this disease and even many of them who are no longer alive, we hopefully have learned the value of health over other pursuits.
Maybe the reason that the discourse on tzara’at is so lengthy and immediately follows the subject of the birth of a child is that the subject of tzara’at is so important since it is meant to inspire personal introspection and contemplation on what is right and wrong and what we should do to improve ourselves – something that we should always consider – and this subject immediately follows that of the birth of a child because, from virtually the day that we are born, we need to keep this in mind.
As the isolation of the one afflicted with tzara’at prompted introspection that could lead to curbing negative forms of behavior, may the isolation and restrictions accompanying this horrific pandemic, albeit very difficult, and the many resulting sick and dead being ever so saddening, prompt all of us to proper introspection to change our negative traits. In line with the verse, “Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d,” may this unusual experience be a springboard to strengthen our bond with our G-d, with our land and with our people. May we strengthen our bond with the Al-Mighty and engage in the requisite introspection, and may G-d be impressed by our thoughts and actions and choose to, in turn, curb this entire situation speedily. May we never again know of such sad and frightening circumstances as we have seen over the last number of weeks, and may the cessation of this experience usher in a better world for all of us.