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Leviticus Healing the Affliction of Isolation

By Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth
Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth 70 Faces of Torah

Parashat Metzora Leviticus 14:1-15:33

In a college creative writing class I had a professor tell me during a workshop that I am “obsessed with space.” Everything I handed in for his class was disproportionately focused on describing the home and other private spaces in great detail. I had not realized I’d been doing it, but once I saw it I couldn’t stop seeing it. In every facet of my life, I realized, I am primarily oriented towards the safety of private space.

Tzara’at, a mysterious affliction described in this week’s parashah, Metzora, shares my spatial orientation. Unlike leprosy, the condition to which it is commonly compared (or even translated as), Tzara’at afflicts not only a person’s body, but the space they inhabit too, turning the refuge of home into an uninhabitable space for the duration of its infection.

Tzara’at requires a lengthy ritual to purify oneself of. For the duration of infection, an afflicted person must stay outside the borders of the camp, removed from the communal space. Once ritually purified, a person is allowed within the camp’s borders but must remain outside the space of their tent for an additional week before completing further ritual steps towards purification.

As soon as the details of purification rituals are described, the Torah relates a message from G-d to Moshe and Aharon. “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.’” (Leviticus 14:34-35) What follows is a vivid description of spatial Tzara’at, and the steps the priest must take to examine and handle the symptoms. The house must be cleared completely, emptied of all objects and people. The symptoms the priest might find on entering are depressions deep within the walls, stained green or red. The infected house must be sealed and all affected stones must be removed not only from the house, but from the entire city. The house is then deep-cleaned, scraped down, re-plastered and repaired, and then re-examined. If it remains symptomatic, it is torn down completely. If it is clear, it may be ritually purified and its inhabitants are permitted to return home, after their own purification processes.

A baraita (teaching from the Tannaitic period) in Tractate Yoma tells us: “a synagogue, a house owned by partners, and the house of a woman can become impure with Tzara’at.” (Yoma 11b) Although the biblical text uses the masculine singular, it is important to the gemara to let us know that we are all susceptible to this affliction of space. None of us is immune to spatial upheaval. The gemara goes on to tell us that houses become afflicted with Tzara’at when their inhabitant “dedicates his house to himself alone” and “refuses to lend his vessels.” An individual ensures the safety of his own space only as much as he ensures the safety of his community. A space of one’s own is wonderful, but Tzara’at warns us that it may also be a tool of isolation.

I know that my own obsession with space can be an impulse to self-isolate. I seek privacy, small corners, and the feeling of temporary safety that comes with withdrawal into a space that I may exert total control over. I tend towards solitude and even, at times, agoraphobia. This is the exact impulse that Tzara’at seems to warn us against. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, writes that “A creature that hides and withdraws into its shell is preparing a way out.” Community falls apart when people prepare their own private ways out.

The details of how we are to handle Tzara’at provide a counter for when we catch ourselves turning our private space into a dominion of isolated retreat from community. We are ejected out from our self-imposed confinement. It strikes me, reading Metzora, that the protocol may serve as a compassionate and gentle easing out of isolation. Beyond the borders of the camp, a person maintains their solitude but learns to reorient towards an identity outside of the confined isolation of their home. Once the contours of their own identity are rebuilt, they are then returned to the communal identity within the camp, and for another week are still prohibited from their private space. This slow move from self-imposed spatial solitude towards community allows a person to change this primary orientation towards isolation, an orientation we are told is harmful and potentially contagious, analogous to a disease.

Removed from the privacy of the home, both isolation and community look and feel a lot different. One who finds themselves afflicted with spatial Tzara’at is, hopefully, eventually permitted back into their personal home. We are permitted the comfort of private space, provided it does not become a tool of withdrawal or serve as a “way out” of communal obligation. If and when it does, Parashat Metzora offers a gradual return to the public spaces of community, culminating in an eventual return to a home in which the spell of isolation has been broken, a home that is private but not inward facing, opening its doors out towards others.

Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth is a Shanah Bet rabbinical student and a cartoonist. They are excited to be continuing a journey of learning and celebrating Torah, tradition, and community.

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