A Ritual of Cleansing

Metzora By :  Melissa Crespy JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Apr 12, 2003 / 5763

Twelve years ago, just before I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, I remember feeling that I wished the age—old practice of putting oil on the heads of “ordainees” was still in vogue. I had spent 6 intense years of my life working to become a rabbi — living at the Seminary, reading and writing voluminously about Talmud, Bible, History and Theology, studying for long hours in the library — and I think I wanted a concrete ritual to mark that hard work, those long hours, and that accomplishment. I believe I also wanted a special ritual that would mark my change in status — one day a regular Jew — the next day — a rabbi. I don’t think I really would have enjoyed the oil on my head — but I clearly longed for a physical ritual to mark this very pivotal moment in my life. As things worked out, my classmates (and others before us) must have felt the same way, because we devised a special ceremony — a Siyyum — which marked the completion of our studies — and during the Siyyum, we were draped with a special Seminary tallit by the Dean of the Rabbinical School. It was an extraordinary moment for me — and I believe that my emotions were heightened because the concrete tallit was a reminder for me of what the years of learning, growth and change had meant.

I thought of this moment — full of ritual and meaning — as I read about the purification ritual in our parashah for the person being cleansed of tzara’at — a terrible skin disease. Throughout much of last week’s parashah, we learned about the manifestations of this disease, how it became known to the priest and the community, and how the infected person was watched to see if he or she became more infected or “cured”. In this week’s parashah, we learn how the leper who has become “free” of the disease becomes purified. It is a detailed ritual involving animal sacrifices, shaving of body hair, sprinkling of blood and oil, and the immersion of the person in water. At certain points in the purification ritual, blood and then oil is placed on the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot of the person to be purified.

While the ceremony at first struck me as odd, messy and inaccessible in its ancientness, it later struck me as terribly meaningful for a person who has suffered a life—threatening disease, and who is now, in a very public and explicit way, being “cleansed” of their disease and welcomed back into the community. I have never, thank God, been faced with a life—threatening disease. But I imagine that if I did, and I survived, I would want to do something positive that marked the end of that terrible period of my life, and the beginning of my new life. Sefer Ha-Hinnukh, quoted in the Etz Hayim Humash, says the leper who bathed his body in water was not simply cleansing himself. The bathing symbolized rebirth and re—creation. The experience of illness and recovery made the leper a new person — that is, someone who now looked at life differently. (p. 661) I imagine if I had survived a life—threatening illness, I would be viewing life differently, and would want a ceremony to mark that positive change in my life.

There are some people today who have immersed in a mikveh for just this purpose. They have survived breast cancer, or suffered a miscarriage, and have wanted to mark their re—entry into life with a meaningful ritual. And I understand them, and applaud them. Just as I longed for a meaningful way to mark my change from student to rabbi, and just as many of us yearn to mark our special birthdays, anniversaries, b’nei mitzvah and marriages with special ceremonies, our parashah teaches us that those who have suffered life—threatening illness may also want or need to mark that moment with a meaningful ritual. We pray that there may be many occasions to mark a recovery to health, and that our community will be with us when we do.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.