Rabbi Sarah Marion
April 24, 2020
“Seeing God in the Scars”
I never could have imagined that a Torah portion about contagious plagues, bodily fluids, pussy skin eruptions, and quarantining the sick could have so much relevance to our modern world. But this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Tazria – now reads like a playbook of our daily lives.
I like to say that every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student who is handed “Parshat Tazria” as his or her Torah portion becomes a special, card-carrying member of the exclusive, “I survived Parshat Tazria” B’nai Mitzvah club. When Olivia has her Bat Mitzvah tomorrow over zoom, she will become an official member of that club – and, now that Tazria is more relevant than ever before, your Torah portion, Olivia, will now be even more unforgettable. And Olivia – not only will you be chanting and teaching us about Parshat Tazria, but, you will also become Congregation B’nai Israel’s first official “Zoom Mitzvah.” A very unforgettable Bat Mitzvah for sure – and we are so proud of you and your commitment to this process, despite these unbelievable circumstances.
But as much as Parshat Tazria is about blood and oozing infections and how to overcome disease through quarantine, I also think that it can be read as a guidebook on how to restore a sense of hope and humanity, after the traumatic experiences of illness, and isolation.
When we step inside Tazria, the following scene comes into focus: It is morning. A member of the Israelite community awakes in his bed, but even before he opens his eyes, he knows that something is wrong. He feels them, immediately. Terrifying, rupturing red sores all over his body. He is paralyzed with fear. By the end of the day, his life has turned upside down – just yesterday, he was living at home with his family – but now, his whole world exists within the confines of an isolation tent, well beyond the bounds of the community and the life he once knew.
Within Tazria, we encounter a society shaken by leprosy – an infectious disease that produces skin sores all over the body.
In this society, a society without doctors and nurses and modern medical technology, it is the High Priest who oversees the processes of examination, isolation and re-integration for those who are afflicted. In a highly detailed and in-depth process, the Priest examines and observes every microscopic detail of the pus, the oozing, the scabs on someone’s skin: he examines the color and the depth of every eruption and the hair inside of it, he records the overall growth of the rash, and, based on all of this data, he decides when a person is able to return to daily life. Not unlike today’s medical heroes on the frontlines – the High Priest is unafraid to get up close and personal with the ruptures, the blood, the scars, the stress, the tears, the trauma, and the pain…
Delving into this scene, I am struck by a verb that repeats throughout: the verb “to see.” Over and over again, the priest intervenes by simply “seeing” a person’s scars and afflictions. He does not attempt to explain the illness nor does he attempt to physically cure it – but, rather, he simply “sees” and “observes” and “witnesses” and “examines” a person’s pain.
It is as if the Priest is saying: I see you. I do not know why or how this happened to you – alas, perhaps only God knows – but, nonetheless I see you. I see your scars. I see your fear. I see you as more than just this disease – I see you as a person – a person who is struggling, a person in need of compassion and love. And so I am not afraid to see and get up close and personal with your scabs and your wounds, because I see your humanity within and underneath them.
And then, ultimately, it is through this process of “seeing” and “being seen” that a person is able to reintegrate into the community.
I see you. What profound and important words when someone is sick or struggling. Words that have healing power, in and of themselves.
Stepping back into our own reality, I think that it is becoming more and more clear – that if we are ever going to truly defeat this pandemic of epic proportions, that we, too – on a collective and global level – need to do a better job of “seeing” the Godliness and the humanity within every single person on this earth – and the ways that we are all so unavoidably, so inextricably connected.
Because all around us, there are so many plagues of inhumanity that continue to fuel the spread of this virus. Hunger and widespread poverty. Systemic racism leading to mass incarceration. A broken, inadequate health care system. Until we alleviate these ugly underbellies of our society, we will remain vulnerable to global pandemics, capable of ravaging our world and our communities and the people we know and love.
It is all so big and so vast and so broken and so complicated. And here we are, trying to carry and withstand so much within our own personal spheres, as it is.
And, at the same time, as much as we can and as best as we can – we need to start somewhere. And wherever we start and however we start – it will, most definitely, be good enough.
If he were still alive today, I think that the High Priest of Parshat Tazria would tell us to simply start by seeing.
And so, I wonder….
In the coming days, weeks, months and years, how can we tell the homeless men, women and children, sleeping in parking lots, curled inside of chalk drawn squares, drawn six feet apart because it’s the best that our system can do…How can we say to them…We see you?
How can we tell the mothers and fathers who must cram their families into tiny rooms and 1 or 2 bedroom apartments – families who don’t have the luxury of self-quarantining when COVID strikes…and who were already struggling so much, even before all of this happened – how can we say to them…We see you?
And how can we tell the brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers, imprisoned for years for petty crimes or crimes they didn’t commit – individuals who are most commonly African American, and who have been failed by a broken system that has now put them on the frontlines of a raging pandemic – how can we say to them…We see you?
And to those who have not had adequate healthcare, and who are now at greater risk for COVID related complications and hospitalization because of that lack of affordable, accessible care – how can we say to them…We see you?
If we can find a way to say to them, to all of them, and to so many more: We see you. We see your scars. We see your humanity. We see God’s face in yours…
Then, maybe, we will finally start to “see” a way out of this nightmare.