One of the most important moments of my week is when we pray for healing as a community during the Torah service. This practice began for me during the years when I worked at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan. As an LGBTQ synagogue that was forged during the AIDS epidemic, they lost an entire generation of gay men in their community. Prayers for healing were essential and complex. It was there that I learned to pray for a refuah shlemah - a complete healing of mind, body, and spirit. And to acknowledge that if a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by care and community.
Disease, illness, and healing are at the center of the Torah portions we are reading this week and next – Tazria and Metzora. They are infamously known for their nuanced teachings about skin afflictions and priestly practices. But since March 2020, these parshiyot have taken on new resonances. Resonances that the two brave B'nei Mitzvah students that we will be celebrating this week and next will be speaking directly to.
About these parshiyot, my teacher Rabbi Art Green writes:
"All of us who read these words are survivors. We have lived together through terrible years of plague. Many of us have lost people we loved or cared about. Readers beyond a certain age are also likely to see themselves as survivors of various other events in the course of our lives: cancers, road accidents, addictions, and lots more sorts of plagues. In the course of this, we have all sought out healers, whether professionals, spouses, or friends. Is there any wisdom for healers or for those needing to be healed (that includes all of us, of course) that might be found in these very obscure chapters of Va-Yikra? Let’s try."
Having had COVID last month, I felt the wisdom and challenge of this parsha's instructions around communicable diseases and quarantine. So deep was my desire not to infect anyone else. When was it safe to emerge? How can I be sure not to transmit this virus? But also my longing to be taken care of. To have someone bring me a cup of soup and sit at my feet. I can relate to the biblical fear of having an illness that we do not fully understand. This is not unique to COVID. And ever more pressing for the many people in our community living with chronic illness.
At the end of this week's parsha we shift from illness to wounds and we receive this instruction:
או בשר כי יהיה בעורו מכות אש...וראה אותה הכהן
"If a person has a burn by fire in the skin...the kohen shall look at it. Has the hair turned white in it? Is it deeper than the skin (13:24-25)?"
Rabbi Green explains, "Here we are talking about an affliction that comes from without, a burn by fire. Let us see it as referring to any sort of wound that has come about due to some external event. We call this trauma...The healer has to look – perhaps 'looking' has to be expanded to listening – carefully before deciding how to go about helping to heal. There are cases when the healer will then be able to move forward, doing or prescribing something that will help. But there are also cases when that ve-ra'ahu ha-kohen, 'the healer sees – or hears – the person,' is itself a great act of healing."
To move beyond the specific sensory language, it seems that the work of the healer is to bear witness, so as to acknowledge the suffering of another. In truth I think this applies to wounds and illnesses, from within and without. I think this parsha points to the power we all have to be kohanim, to be healing presences for one another.
Each week we lean into our priestly duties as we pray for healing, as we offer ourselves as listening companions, visit each other in the hospital, and cook meals for one another. This care work is holy, it is ancient, and it, too, is a great act of healing.
May the one who brings healing and wholeness on high, bring healing and wholeness to everyone who dwells on Earth. And when a complete healing is not possible, may we be surrounded by a community of people to bear witness and be with us to ease our suffering.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.