Illness can be isolating. When you are sick, even for a day or two, it is easy to feel sequestered. With extended illness or chronic conditions, the hours and days can be lonely, filled with endless waiting of unknown duration with the hope for health to return once again.
This week, in parashat Tazria, (Leviticus 13), we read of impurity due to various skin ailments. This section is often read in conjunction with the next week’s portion, Metzora, as a double portion. The illnesses are described in this week’s portion; the remedies are described in next week’s portion. The isolation of the individual with these skin lesions by the kohen in Torah is born of ritual defilement; however, it is true still today that visible deformity and illness are shunned, and are fearful and anxiety-provoking for the patient and for the community. How many of us regularly make visits to or reach out to those who are ill? Our tradition expects of us to overcome our own fears of illness so that we can break down barriers of isolation for those who are ill. The Talmud teaches: Whoever visits the sick removes one sixtieth of his illness, while one who ignores a sick person hastens his death (Baba Metzia 30b). There can be tremendous power in our presence with someone who is ailing.
In my work, I have seen the loneliness of illness – those isolated or disconnected from friends and family because of their limitations – and the additional pain and grief that separation brings. I, too, have experienced the separation from and subsequent grateful return to community as I recovered from surgery.
Pirkei Avot teaches: Do not separate yourself from the community (Avot 2:5). How can we reconcile this paradoxical teaching with this week’s Torah portion? Even when you might need to be physically separated – perhaps you are just too weak to be around anyone, or you are physically compromised and need to be isolated, or you might be contagious to those around you—our tradition recognizes here that the goal is not to remain separated, but to be able to return.
Illness can separate us from our family, friends and community – so how does one return? The Torah teaches here that it is through ritual. We will read in next week’s portion of the bringing of two birds for an offering: one is placed on the fire of the altar, the other is set free. While we do not today re-enact the ancient burnt offerings, we can re-imagine these two birds as our spiritual offerings: one representing the casting off of our illness, and the other representing our transformation (burning is transformative) and transition back to health in the presence of community. The physicality of ritual is so crucial to experiencing change, to really remembering that moments of transition matter.