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Sickness, Separation and Openings

Even more certain than taxes is death and illness. A recent bout with temporary disability following knee surgery brought me to Tazria-Metzora with new eyes.

Tazri’a-Metzora can seem like just one more of those readings in Leviticus / Vayikra that seem irrelevant, complex, and downright boring. But they can also provide windows into the way life was lived millennia ago, not as something alien, but as normal and familiar. Just as with us, life then must have been punctuated with all sorts of disabilities. Just as with us, for some the causes were known, while others were a mystery. And also just as with us, illness is inevitably linked with blame. Yes, what was a bad knee-joint like that doing in a nice girl like me? you may ask. I certainly did.

For us the questions are whether the causes are genetic (had we only chosen our parents more wisely) or due to our fault (had we only eaten a healthy diet, exercised, and not driven so fast) or someone else’s (had we but known our workplace was full of carcinogens). The causation tells us something about the cure.

So too for people alive thousands of years ago. Yes, the foot may have been injured by rocks crashing down, but was it punishment for sin? And if for sin, whose sin? And how to expiate it and return to wellness and wholeness?

Tazri’a-Metzora opens a window on the priests’ role in dealing with unexplained illnesses and matters related to reproduction. In this case, they are not appealing to God for cures. Rather, they are acting as diagnosticians and healers. When you read the text, you can see they are doing the best they can when lab tests, x-rays, MRIs, or arthroscopic surgery will not be available for many years, to say nothing of antibiotics.

So the priests have this heavy responsibility of diagnosis, of getting it right, with little to guide them. I would imagine that even though so much of Leviticus is taken up with the details of sacrifice, the average member of the priestly class must have spent far more time listening to descriptions of aches and pains and giving advice. As with my surgeon, the priests had to depend on touch, sight, patient descriptions, and training, but my surgeon also had the x-rays and MRI results, plus a camera inserted in my knee during surgery to show him what was really wrong.

Just as with the priests, I needed the doctor to explain what I was seeing in the photos taken of the inside of my own knee. What looked like fluffy bits of cotton candy were actually nasty rough things that explained some of the pain.

Surgery and disability are a revelation, and they are events our tradition helps us place in context. I came away from surgery on crutches and faced a few days in which the simplest acts were either impossible, very difficult, or embarrassing. When all your limbs are busy moving you around, sometimes following the example of my dogs by carrying things in my mouth made the most sense.

In a few days I was able to “walk” and in a few more I could walk and move on to tackling the challenge of stairs and eventually getting permission to drive. In the last few weeks I have moved through the life stages of infant, toddler, and sixteen year old. And at last not having to think about how to place my steps on firm ground. Just doing it.

And through it all, I was in that two-year old why stage about what was happening inside my body and how best to make myself whole again. This is not to say I was not grateful before to have these complex parts of my body work correctly. But for now I certainly am slightly more aware of gratitude. And when I slip back into taking my body for granted, I am grateful for our tradition and its inclusion of this human experience prominently in our service in the birhot hashahar (morning blessings) to remind us to be grateful for the mundane:
Blessed are you, THE WAY, our god, life of all worlds, who makes firm a person’s steps. . . .

Blessed are you, The ARCHITECT, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who shaped the human being with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body. It is revealed and known before your Throne of Glory that if one of these passage-ways be open when it should be closed, or blocked up when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before you. Blessed are you, MIRACULOUS, the wondrous healer of all flesh. —translation from Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat VeHagim (1996)
Type: Dvar Torah

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