black in white illustration of a man in robes reaching out to a man hunched over and hiding his face
A Levite priest examining someone for leprosy, which may be the disease referred to in this week's Torah portion

What is the relationship between purity and health?

Leviticus 12:1-15:33
II Kings 7:3-20

There is nothing more frustrating, stressful, anxiety provoking and downright annoying than being sick. Be it the common cold, a virus, or something chronic, sickness always seems to find a way to interrupt what’s going on in our lives: work, vacation, caring for children, getting a good night’s sleep, etc. Not only do we feel lousy throughout the day, we must spend hours more rescheduling meetings, going to the doctor, getting lab work done, and stopping at the pharmacy before we can finally return home and get back into bed.

This week’s double portion, Tazria-Metzora, is for many people, a rather difficult and “icky” reading because of its detailed and rather graphic description of skin diseases and bodily fluids. The Torah describes these ailments through the lens of “tamei — impure” and “tahor — pure,” as if to say that when a person is sick or experiencing some kind of physical, mental or spiritual pain and discomfort, that they are in a state of ritual impurity and must remove themselves from the community.

To some degree this makes sense. In the world of the Bible, physical illness was a consequence of wrongdoing. One midrash teaches, “God inflicted tzar’at [a scale-like disease] as punishment for libel, bloodshed, vain oaths, sexual crimes, robbery and a refusal to offer tzedakah [charity]” (Leviticus Rabbah 17:3).

It’s theologically challenging to think that God punishes us for our sinful actions by making us ill. Not exactly the way I want to think about my relationship with God. And in moments where people need us the most, we are removed from the community rather than brought close. It would be awful to suggest that the reason why a person had cancer or depression or some other illness was because they had violated some law as commanded by God.

Yet, perhaps there is a relationship between health and purity. Frequently, when we are feeling unhealthy, we also lack balance and harmony in our lives. When people struggle physically or mentally, it is often difficult to connect with those around us. Similarly, when we do not nourish our souls and take care of ourselves by eating right, sleeping enough and exercising, we become physically rundown, drained — we may even make ourselves sick. Regaining equilibrium in our lives is more difficult when we lack purity of heart and spirit.

The Torah portion says a person who has a skin infection should call out “Tamei, tamei — impure, impure,” before removing himself/herself from the camp to allow time for healing to take place. The Babylonian Talmud (Moed Katan 5a), says that the purpose of this declaration is not only to make sure that no one else gets sick, but more importantly, to elicit compassion and prayers for those who struggle with illness. It’s a way of seeking support from others based on what the sick person needs.

Whenever someone asks me to pray for them during a time of illness, I always respond, “What would you like to pray for?” Reciting “tamei, tamei” is not only about alerting the community to help, but also about listening to the needs of those in need of our support. When we pray for refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf (healing of soul and body) and a refuah shleimah (complete healing), we seek to support the sick in ways that speak to them, so that they may experience strength, empathy, compassion and a companionship on their journey toward shleimut — physical, mental, and spiritual wholeness — especially when complete healing isn’t possible.

I admit that the system set up in the Torah is not a perfect parallel to what we experience today. Yet, these two portions remind me of the importance of engaging in regular self-reflection, reminding us to take good care of our physical, mental and spiritual needs and to pay attention to the needs of those around us. Perhaps it’s true that the reason why we are sick is because we are living a life unbalanced. At the very least, this week’s reading reminds us of the importance of being compassionate and supportive and listening to one another during our times of need. Without the love, prayers and kindness of others, it would be difficult for any of us to get back to that sense of sacred wholeness.

A blessing by Rabbi Naomi Levy: “May God heal you, body and soul. May your pain cease, may your strength increase, may your fears be released, may blessings, love, and joy surround you.” Amen.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].