I know a lot of folks are really going through a lot right now. I have really had you in my mind and heart, and I was thinking of you as I read this week’s parsha. I wanted to let you know that I am going to “go there” with my words today, and though I do so from a place of hope and faith that exploring these sufferings can help us to frame or even move through them, I want to do so with humility, and acknowledge that it is for each individual to decide what you need and I can only offer thoughts born of my own experience.
Every month since last June, Phreddy, Honi, and myself gather ourselves, some snacks, and toys, and make our way to the Children’s Hospital of NY a mere 20 minute walk from our apartment. The day always starts with an echo cardiogram, where ultrasound technology is used to look at the progress of Honi’s heart since his surgery on June 19th.
The experience, increasingly unpleasant the more willful Honi grows, is non-invasive. We watch the images as they move across the screen and try our best to look for the conditions we know he is supposed to be progressing beyond: “is that his narrow aorta?” “his leaky mitral valve?” “does it look like maybe his left ventricle is less enlarged than before?” It is, at best, a futile attempt of at understanding something scary that is ultimately beyond our control.
The truth is, Honi is recovering, and unlike the existential fear we faced at the beginning of this process, we are now dealing in shades of wellness and not survival. But we are forever marked by the chapter where we had to fear for his life, and no matter how much he heals, we will never entirely leave behind our fear.
In this week’s parsha, Metzorah, the priest in charge of purification visits the victim of tsora’at while they are ostensibly quarantined outside of the camp. A metzorah, one who is suffering from the affliction of tsora’at, is often translated as a leper. There is much argument that this is actually not the right “diagnosis” and what is likely more accurate is that tsora’at was a catchall term for any sickness/infection that manifested on the skin. For our purposes, I want to further abstract the metzorah as one who is suffering from an illness that isolates them.
Illness, in general, is a deeply challenging experience. It is something which we largely cannot control. It strikes our loved ones. When it strikes us our dignity and our autonomy are taken from us. It can result in isolation from loved ones and alienation from ourselves. I know many of us here today have been touched through ourselves and/or our loved ones by suffering associated with illness and this Torah today is for you.
The metzorah in our parsha is in a difficult place. Suffering themselves, they are cast out of the city to live in semi isolation. They are, however, visited by the priest, who performs a weekly checkup on them not unlike the eco-cardiogram I shared about before. Their role as physical and spiritual healers is to ascertain the status of the metzorah, are they still contageous or has the affliction passed and they can begin the purification process. They are stuck in a liminal space between healed and sick, dead and alive. And the Kohen is their sole visitor.
Our suffering can isolate us, it can diminish us in our own eyes. It can keep up distant even from those who try to bring consolation. And for caregivers and loved ones, it can bring up deep and painful fears of death and a realization of our own human fragility. Because of the physical and spiritual ways that sickness works on us, I think it is all the more instructive to look closely at the strange rehabilitation ritual that is proscribed for the metzorah.
The metzorah is to bring two live, pure (kosher) birds, along with cedar, crimson wool, and hyssop. One bird is ritually slaughtered over a clay pot and then the cedar and hyssop (likely bound together by the crimson thread) along with the live bird, are dipped in the dead bird’s blood. Then that blood is sprinkled seven times on the metzorah after which the live bird, stained with its fellow’s blood, is set free in open country.
I know, there is a lot of blood, violence, and witchy stuff happening here. But stick with me for a moment. First I want to draw attention to how the two birds one living and one dead, embody the two possible fates of the person who is suffering from illness. But I also want to consider how the live bird does not simply live, it carries the death of the other bird with it. Though it is set free in the open (as the rabbinic commentator Bekhor Shor notes, to a place of life and growth) it is changed by its near death experience and it brings that experience with it into its future. I want to spell this part out – the live bird has had a near death experience because of the randomness of it being chosen for live and not for slaughter. And I want to underscore that this randomness also defines our own suffering. And for those of us who are touched by illness and death. We never leave the experience behind, though we may return to our lives. We are forever changed.
Rather than leave you there, I want to consider one last part of the rehabilitation ritual. The bundle of cedar and hyssop. It is explained in midrash that these two plants are metaphors for great (cedar) and small/lowly (hyssop). The fact that they are employed here is once again resonant with our experiences of illness, that seem to take us from our strength and bring us low. But we are not left low by this transformation.
At Pesach time, the time of year when we collectively observe our people’s transition from suffering to redemption, the hyssop appears again, but without the cedar. The hyssop, you might recall, is bundled together to serve as a brush, with which the doorposts of the Jews’ homes are painted with the blood of the Pesach sacrifice. Again, a grisly image. Again, we are dealing with the threshold between life and death. And again, the lowly hyssop plays a central role. It is the lowness of the hyssop, it’s humility, that make it the right vehicle for transformation in both of these ritual moments. For liberation is not without suffering, without the memory of suffering. But in this season, we recognize that we have all suffered, we have all been lost, at times, in the wilderness. But when we look around, we see that we are not the only one flying with blood painted on our wings.