II Kings 7:3–20
In this week’s parashah, Metzora, we learn of the rituals that take place after someone heals from tzara’at, a white, scaly skin affliction commonly thought to be leprosy (although this is debated).
Upon diagnosis, the individual is sent to live outside the camp. When the affliction lifts, the priest examines the individual for signs of the disease. If none are found, the person begins the physical cleansing ritual.
First, two birds, crimson stuff, cedar wood and hyssop are brought. One bird is slaughtered over fresh water, and the other items are dipped in the blood of the dead bird. The priest then sprinkles water over the individual seven times for cleansing, and the live bird is set free. Then, all hair has to be shaved (head, beard and eyebrows), the person has to wash all clothing, bathe in water, and then is clean.
After eight days, the person performs the rituals that address the matters of the spirit. The individual brings one female lamb and two male lambs, flour and oil to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The guilt offering is slaughtered first, and some of the blood of the lamb is put on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand and the big toe of the right foot of the recently healed person. The priest then takes the oil and pours it into his left hand, dipping his right finger into the oil and sprinkling some of it on the altar. Then the oil is put on the person’s ear, hand and foot, and over the blood of the guilt offering. The rest of the oil is put on the head. The priest then sacrifices the other lambs as sin and burnt offerings. In the case of someone who did not have the means to bring three lambs, one lamb for the guilt offering and two turtledoves or pigeons for the sin and the burnt offerings sufficed.
It can be difficult, in a world where we are so removed from animal sacrifice, to find relevance in our ancient rituals. Here, Torah teaches us that full recovery from a severe illness requires healing of the body as well as the spirit.
The ritual for physical wellness is relatively clear. The live bird is dipped in the dead bird’s blood, symbolizing that the person came close to death and yet lived. In terms of the spirit, we could interpret that the sin, guilt and burnt offerings were brought because our ancestors believed that sin caused the illness. The sin offering was a specific sin for which one wanted to atone. The guilt offering was recognition that one may have unwittingly committed a sin, though the specifics of it may not be clear. And a burnt offering was brought as a sign of humility and complete submission to God.
Yet, perhaps the offerings were not about what caused the illness, but rather the kinds of things Torah asks us to think about after an illness.
It is common for people to be reflective about their lives after experiencing a life-threatening illness or accident. Sometimes, they will identify a specific issue or relationship they feel badly about; when able, they do something to rectify the situation. Similar to the sin offering. Or, sometimes, people reflect on their lives and think they have not spent time on the things most important to them, and they resolve to move forward in a different way. Akin to the guilt offering. And, often, people feel humbled by the experience of significant illness, reminding themselves how little control we really have over our lives. Much like the burnt offering.
Metzora’s specific rituals ensured that we would do that reflection. That we do not practice the rituals the same way means we must be more mindful of taking that reflection seriously, so that we can be more intentional moving forward. As many who have lived through a serious illness know, as difficult as the experience is, it can be a positive turning point, helping us to reconcile the past and enabling us to focus on what is most important.
May those who suffer from illness be healed in body and in spirit, that we may all strive to lead richer and more meaningful lives.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.