Weekly Torah portion: March 22, 2014

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Tazria

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

This is the Torah portion you’ve been itching to read all year. But if you think Parshat Tazria is easy to get through, then you’re sorely mistaken.

I must admit this Torah portion makes me cringe a little. I assume only a dermatologist would really enjoy getting into this level of detail about oozing skin sores, specific discolorations, and other bodily discharges not suitable for this family publication. (I didn’t even like typing “discharges.”)

In order to really appreciate the meaning of this week’s parsha, (and it even continues into next week’s too!), you have to take yourself out of your comfortable life of accessible health care and imagine the ancient Israelites wandering in a desert for generations and what issues they might have faced back then — like skin rashes and leprosy.

Rather than what today’s doctors might refer to as leprosy, the Torah describes different kinds of rashes and skin lesions in this parsha. And if you think about it, these were probably pretty common among a huge, close-knit group of people spending years in a desert climate. Suffice it to say that no one had any moisturizer back then.

Also, keep in mind that in a place as dangerous and forbidding as the desert, the Israelites tried to maintain as much control as possible over their thoughts and emotions. So when their bodies went out of control they sought out the High Priest to bring back a sense of balance to their lives. And with the High Priest acting like some ancient doctor, health issues became spiritual issues and someone was deemed “pure” or “impure.”

The ancient Israelites were all about purity, and the way that they defined purity was whether a person was eligible or qualified to be included in certain community rituals or traditions. It didn’t really have anything to do with being dirty or having bad hygiene. (They were, after all, walking around a desert for 40 years.) So being “impure” meant that something might have happened to you, or you did something to take away that level of purity.

There was a bunch of ways that an ancient Israelite could become impure and not all of them had to do with your health. For instance, if you came in contact with a dead body, you were impure. Or after a woman gave birth, she was considered impure as well. In cases like these, people had to bring a certain kind of sacrifice to get back their “pure” status. Seems a little backwards, but if you put yourself in that place and time, it begins to make sense. By defining conditions as either “pure” or “impure,” people could gain a sense of comfort and security, as well as a measure of control over their lives.

I have always wondered whether this somewhat strange Torah portion was itself a metaphor for the teenage years! Just like the Israelites, teenagers have to navigate an environment that might seem intimidating or foreign — high school! And their bodies are changing in ways that seem out of their control. Of course, we don’t characterize anyone today in terms of purity, but bar mitzvah kids and older teens might think about ways to maintain a sense of order over their own scary world. Bar and bat mitzvah time is when kids start taking control over the decisions they make and looking at the world around them in a more mature way.

Luckily, they don’t have to find some High Priest to guide them. They’ve got Mom and Dad who are only too happy to point out when they’re acting rashly.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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