Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)
Tazria-Metzora describes a series of incomprehensible plagues, ones that affect skin, clothes, and homes. Skin erupts with scaly white affections, clothes and walls become streaked with green and red. The procedure for a person with a skin affection involves examination by a priest, isolation, and when healed, sacrifices, washing and eventually full reintegration into the community.
In the book of Leviticus, this skin disease appears to be a matter of the world—something that anyone could potentially suffer. Skin disease is simply something that happens to our bodies; our job is to respond to with a particular procedural rite.
In the book of Numbers, though, this skin disease becomes a punishment for a moral failing. When Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses for his marriage to a Cushite woman, God punishes Miriam more severely by inflicting her with skin disease. Rabbinic tradition both condemns and justifies her action: on the one hand, she commits the sin of slander; on the other hand she speaks up for Moses’ wife Zipporah, condemning Moses for separating from her and refusing to engage in sexual intercourse with her. Aaron intercedes with Moses, asking for mercy for his sister, and Moses in turn intercedes with God, saying: “Please God, heal her” (Numbers 12:13). Nevertheless, God commands that Miriam be sent out of the camp for seven days, isolated from the people, who wait for her until she is readmitted.
This waiting and this isolation, though, is not new for Miriam. When her mother, Yoheved, hides her brother Moses in a basket in the Nile River, Miriam waits there alone, watching to see what will happen to her brother. For however long she remains at the Nile, perhaps she also imagines herself protecting him. She, it appears, is one who knows when it is time to be alone and how that aloneness will serve her people.
But Miriam also knows that isolation is insufficient. When Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby, Miriam approaches her and offers Yoheved as a wet nurse. She returns her brother to his mother. When Israel survives the crossing of the Reed Sea, Miriam leads the women in song and dance, timbrel in hand. She is in their midst, teaching celebration.
I keep Miriam with me as a reminder that isolation can be redemptive; that we can follow the procedures of waiting and that others will wait for and with us; and that we will once again be able to dance and celebrate in the midst of family, friends, and community.
Rabbi Jane Kanarek is Associate Dean for Academic Development and Advising and Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.