Give me something inaccessible. Something confusing and impenetrable, and preferably also slightly repulsive so that even people who might make the effort don't care to.
And she said: "April 9, Parshat Tazria".
And boy did she deliver! No personalities, no story, only the briefest passage on interesting legal questions, and fifty-nine straight verses on the diagnosis of ancient and now extinct skin diseases. That's right, no practical information for the modern reader whatsoever, but a strange, wandering discussion of skin diseases as confusing as it is... a little bit gross.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this text is an academic, dry relic. But of course, that's not true. It's more academic and… oozing.
And yet, this unpoetic, convoluted, clinical text contains within it one of the elemental questions of the Torah. A question of power, and of good and evil, and what it is to exercise power and live with good and evil in our leaders, and in ourselves.
So how do we get from an ancient diagnostic manual of dermatology to Good and Evil?
Let's start with some basic background.
Parshat Tazria is primarily concerned with a set of skin diseases and what to do with the people who contract them. The word the Torah uses for these diseases is 'tzara'at' (tzadi, resh, ayin, taf). We're not really sure what this word means or where it comes from, but a linguistic confusion arising from the translation to Greek has led many sources (including our Chumashim) to render this into English as 'leprosy'.
But tzara'at isn't leprosy: we know what leprosy looks like and tzara'at is completely different. Tzara'at isn't even one disease - it seems to be a catch-all for a group of afflictions that disfigure the skin. Some of the symptoms described in Tazria sound like psoriasis, some like eczema, or impetigo, or even some kinds of carcinoma. Other symptoms of tzara'at aren't found in any modern disease. If you have tzara'at it can get into your clothes. It also, oddly enough, can infect the walls of houses. This has puzzled some observers, how residential walls can be covered in an ugly growth… evidently these observers have never lived in a place with a leaky roof and a landlord who doesn't give a care.
Not that I'm bitter.
But while tzara'at could represent some kind of mould or rot in the walls, it's primarily a disease of the skin — or rather diseases of the skin, some of which are benign, others not so much.
By far the biggest chunk of Parshat Tazria is G'd giving detailed instructions to Moses and Aaron as to how they can tell whether an Israelite, presenting with tzara'at is 'clean' (in which case no biggie) or 'unclean'. And if they are unclean it's very bad.
The unclean tzara'at suffer is banished from the camp. Not only are they ejected from society, but they are commanded to take on a set of signs which can be taken to represent a kind of ritual humiliation. They must rend their clothes, let loose their hair and, if approached, they are to cover their upper lip and cry 'unclean!, unclean!'.
Now, when I read this — and then had Julie read it and explain it to me — the plain meaning seemed [to be perfectly honest] obvious and unproblematic.
Why are they carefully differentiating between clean and unclean sufferers? Why are they casting out the unclean and forcing them to make visible and audible signs so that others will stay away from them? Because some tzara'at sufferers (the 'clean' ones) are not infectious while others (the 'unclean' ones) are contagious and can spread the disease. So you isolate the contagious ones: you put them in quarantine. So: obvious, this is about quarantine.
I was surprised to find out that the rabbis, by and large, very, very vigorously disagree. Their arguments are too numerous and subtle to set out here, but basically they come up with a series of midrashic anecdotes to make the case that tzara'at isn't contagious after all. If it isn't contagious, there's no point in quarantining people. So this whole banishing people from the camp thing can't possibly have anything to do with quarantine.
What is it about? Here they bring in some clever word-play.
In the Torah, somebody afflicted with tzara'at is called a metzora. But a motzi shem ra is a slanderer, somebody guilty of the sin of gossipping. So, by the transitive property of midrashic puns, a metzora must be somebody struck down with tzara'at by G'd for the sin of motzi shem ra — gossipping.
Which makes lots of sense! You castigate the gossip with social isolation: the punishment fits the crime! Our parsha gives us a nice neat moral lesson about the gravity of talkin' about people behind their backs.
Which is very nice. But what about the quarantine thing? I mean, I know the rabbis like to find deeper meanings, but why are they rejecting surface reading, the pashat meaning?
Now I admit that the quarantine thing seems 'obvious' to me, in part, because I come from a very specific cultural context. 1) I'm the son of an epidemiologist, and 2) I also grew up in the UK, and British culture sees quarantine in a very particular way: as a matter of heroic, stoic self-sacrifice.
But I still don't think it's just me and my Britishness. There's quite a lot of support for the quarantine interpretation in the text.
For example, we know that you're not thrown out of the camp because you're disfigured, because lots of people, some of whom are disfigured from birth, others who have 'benign' forms of tzara'at, are judged clean.
The parsha seems to impose stringent infection controls, not just on people but on things they've come into contact with. Clothes which have tzara'aty goop on them must be carefully disinfected, either by washing or (if that doesn't work) burning.
Then there's the thing about covering your mouth while you cry 'unclean, unclean!' Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) claims that this is to prevent the noxious fumes from your breath infecting the people you're trying to warn away. That’s a theory called miasmatic contagion – obviously, ibn Ezra believed that this was a transmissible disease.
It's not that the rabbis of Jewish history didn't know about these arguments: they definitely knew about them because they spent an enormous amount of ink and effort refuting them.
Why? What's wrong with quarantine?
Well, the answer to that is complicated and multi-fasceted, and somebody won't give me a measly two hours to explain it in proper depth. I know!
Short answer: it's about culture, and it's about power, and it's about good and evil and what it means to live with the evil in our world.
Think about what it means to send somebody into quarantine. You are condemning somebody you might care about very much to die in isolation.
The rabbis recognised that, in essence, Tazira teaches us that there are times when leaders must do intolerably cruel things to the people they care for.
No wonder they didn't like it! I can think of no idea more hurtful to one who takes up a vocation as a teacher.
You could see this as squeamishness, I suppose. You could see it as admirable. They simply can't bring themselves to contemplate cruelty — even when that cruelty is in the service of arresting plague.
There is an irreducible paradox, here, because this impulse is the best impulse of our religion. That respect for dignity, for personhood, above all for life: that's an impulse that has imbued Jewish tradition with a radical humanity, that is one of its greatest virtues.
But in trying to honour that virtue, the rabbis create this narrative which originally seemed like a moral lesson but now... seems really troubling.
Those gossipy Jews gossipped, they engaged in motzi shem ra, and they were smitten with tzara'at as a result.
The rabbis are literally blaming the victim.
What are the signs of tzara'at quarantine? Torn clothes, unkempt hair, isolation from normal society — it's escaped nobody's attention that these are signs of mourning in Jewish tradition. This 'gossip' idea converts the ensigns of compassion in to badges of shame.
In our modern context, after everything that's happened in the last two millennia, how can we countenance dismissing the desperate, the destitute, the infected, as people being justly punished by G'd?
And yet who among us does not prefer the soothing illusion that the people we hurt and neglect somehow deserve it, and that those who are good need never be cruel. Parshat Tazria punctures those illusions with its harsh injunctions to desperate measures.
There are places in the Torah where we live under the loving care of Avinu Malkeinu — our parent, our sovereign. But not here.
Here we're not subjects or children; we're on our own, and we're adults.
And that's terrifying. And it's also a profound expression of trust.
We find Parshat Tazria disturbing because it reminds us that we don't live in a 'just world'. Because it reminds us that responsibility means two things: it is the need to do something, and it is the consequences of doing it. When you have to do something cruel, you end up bearing the moral weight of that action: even when you had no choice, even when you did what was best. That cruelty will live with you the rest of your life like a scar.
And even if you never lead, you still can't escape. When we demand that our leaders be unblemished: untouched by compromise, unmarred by error, clean of any past difficult decision — we demand that they do what all those rabbis did on reading Tazria: find a very clever way of putting the blame on someone else.
In our moral universe nothing comes for free: the price of leadership is pain, the price of action is destruction, the price of saving some people is letting others die.
No, we live in an unjust world. But doesn't mean we can't be trusted to live in a good world.
See, there's something I haven't told you yet, about Parshat Tazria, and why this is a special day… Today, we're standing here at the beginning of the first month of the Hebrew calendar which is, in that paradoxical Hebrew way, the exact middle of the year of festivals.
And those who laid out our calendar created, this year, a fascinating integration between Parshat Tazria and that pair of 'new years'.
The rabbis of the Talmud insisted that Tazria be the central Parsha in the Torah — literally that it was the middle of the scroll: Parshat Tazria: the one where sensible people say 'no' to the dvar and 'yes' to the Hagbah.
Here’s the thing: it isn't true; the middle of the Torah came five chapters and two weeks ago. But they demanded that this be the middle of the book. And they made it the middle parsha, 27 out of 54. It's a stunning and, I can only think, intentional contrast. Because what do we sing on the exact opposite side of the year? That other New Year? The end and beginning of the reading cycle? Avinu Malkeiu. The time of t'shuvah: the season of seeking and receiving forgiveness.
And now, back here on our side, in the very middle, here we are, with Tazria. Tazria doesn't comfort or reprieve. We know who will live and who will die; we can read it on their skin.
Tazria only trusts. Trusts us to live with ourselves. And the darkness in ourselves. And the frailties of our bodies and spirits. It trusts us to live in a place where joy is always mixed with sorrow, and to see that that mixture makes joy richer, and shine more brightly. It trusts us to live in a life where we will face degradation, and have dignity, and see that that the one one does not erase the other. It trusts us to possess souls which contain the capacity both for love and cruelty, and see that this balance is not a weakness, but a thing that makes us human.
Today, we are trusted to look with equanimity upon the sores and blisters of our bodies and our minds and our spirits, and to see that we don't need to mourn, or tear our clothes, or hide our faces away. Because today the Torah reminds us that the standard of goodness is not perfection, but that we should bear or choices with courage, and wear our scars with pride.