In days of old, when a person came down with scaly skin, weird baldness, and strange discharge, he or she went to Aharon or one of his descendants, priests all, to be diagnosed. If it was bad enough, if it was indeed tzaraat,—once translated as leprosy, but understood by the rabbis as a spiritual, not just physical disease—the ill person was isolated and sent outside the camp to get better. After a certain amount of time, the person with tzaraat would return to the community, with an elaborate welcoming ritual: mikvah, a sacrifice, and an anointing by Aharon himself. But what happens when we are all sent outside the camp?
In this second half of this week’s parshah, there is an even stranger idea introduced: tzaraat of a house. What might look like mold on the walls of the house might be something more dangerous, more insidious – the plague of tzaraat in the house, permeating the walls and inner workings of the place where we dwell. Once again, if “plague” of the house is suspected, or feared, a person goes to the priest, who examines the house. If the house does not “heal” within seven days, it must be taken apart, brick by brick, stone by stone, and those building blocks cast outside the camp. The house is then rebuilt, plastering new stones in in place of the old, plagued ones.
What are we to learn from this? Here we are, in a time of “plague,” both separated from one another for our own good, and yet connected in our separation; here we are, alone, together. And I am struck that in the Torah, when a person is afflicted with tzaraat, there is no shame; there is simply a method of dealing with the occurrence. Indeed, we are told later in the Torah, that when Miriam was struck with tzaraat, the entire community of Israel waited seven days for her to heal so that she could rejoin the camp before they all moved on, together. (While the rabbis make a connection between tzaraat and lashon hara, I am going in a completely different direction here, so bear with me!) So, too, we might treat those of us who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression—whether normative, existential responses to the world we are inhabiting right now, or those of us who have actual mental illnesses. When in doubt, the first thing to do is to get help: go to someone to check out your condition. That might be a friend, or a fellow rabbi. It might be a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. This reaching out for help is the first step in treating the problem. It is, alas, not a magic step: even Aharon, the high priest, could not instantly cure tzaraat. But he, and we, can at least name the problem, and take steps to treat it.
Of course, we shouldn’t send folks with mental health issues outside the camp. We want to decrease stigma, not validate harmful stereotypes! And the rabbinic interpretation of the treatment of the m’tzora is already moving in that direction. Concerning the m’tzora, the Torah explains, her clothes shall be rent, her head shall be bare; she shall cover her upper lip and call out “טמא, טמא!! Impure! Impure!…And her dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45)
Upon first reading, this crying out is a way to tell people “to go away, avoid me. I am sick, I am dangerous. I have bipolar disorder! My child is autistic! I am so anxious I can’t get dressed in the morning! I am mentally ill: beware lest I infect you. I am impure, unclean, perhaps even God has forsaken me!!” But the rabbis turn this over upon its head. In the Talmud, in Tractate Niddah (66a) they explain, the afflicted person calls out “טמא!” so as let others “know of his sufferings so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf.” Instead of casting out those who suffer, it is our job to bring into our community those who are in pain. And until we know who is hurting, we cannot help one another.
Sometimes, when mental illness, or just overwhelming stress, enters our lives, our daily routine can become a “plagued” house. We have to look at the stones that make up our lives, and see which ones are moldy and full of tzaraat, full of things that are making our depression or anxiety worse, and cast out those behaviors. Perhaps we need more—or less —sleep. How is our eating: full of sugar, or nutrients? We can look for balance: for actions that heal, and also forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, for doing the best we can. Sometimes, a five-mile run is the best we can. Sometimes, taking a shower takes as much effort and deserves just as much credit.
We will survive this external plague of COVID-19. With compassion and courage, we can name and respond to the internal tzaraat among us as well.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org