One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my rabbinic training was participating in a course called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). During CPE, I worked as a hospital chaplain, going from room to room to listen to, pray with, and be present for patients and hospital staff alike. In addition to providing support, chaplains in CPE are guided in self-reflection in order to better understand ourselves as givers and recipients of care. Needless to say, I learned a great deal that summer—about our healthcare system, about pain and healing, and about myself.
I was lucky enough to be taught by an incredible chaplain, Rabbi Jo Hirschmann, who was there to guide me as I went through this intense experience. She, along with another of my rabbinic school professors, Rabbi Nancy Wiener, wrote a book that we studied that summer, entitled Maps and Meaning: Levitical Models for Contemporary Care. In it, they explore how the Torah’s handling of tzara’at, a biblical skin disease, can help us think about how we navigate illness, caregiving, and healing. Its lessons have stayed with me to this day.
According to the Torah (Leviticus 13), tzara’at was a skin condition that necessitated a period of quarantine. Any Israelite with symptoms of tzara’at had to call out: Tamei! Tamei! – “Unclean! Unclean!” and was required to isolate outside the Israelite camp until the symptoms subsided. When the time period of the quarantine was complete, the priest (the religious leader who also served as a medical professional) examined the patient, led them in a sacrificial ritual, and brought them back into the camp, where they had to quarantine outside of their homes for an additional week.
Since learning from Rabbis Hirschmann and Wiener, I have been struck by the brilliance of the Torah’s steps for bringing a person out of a period of quarantine and back into the camp. Instead of throwing a person right back into a routine after an experience of physical isolation and emotional disruption, the person re-enters the camp in stages. First, they mark the end of their quarantine through a ritual, giving thanks that this ordeal is behind them. Then, they can rejoin society, but they do it slowly. They take an extra week to acclimate before returning to their homes and their regular lives.
In a recording of their book launch, Rabbi Weiner says the following:
One of the things that we found really fascinating was that there were very clear ideas of what could help both a person who suffered from tzara’at and the priest who visited as they journeyed out and as they came back. There was no assumption that either would be able to quickly move from one place…or mental space easily and come back…We were thinking about some of the contemporary corollaries. What is it for us to have people who are spending time in hospitals or in nursing homes [or military service]?…They’re leaving the places that they know best and… where they feel most rooted…What [do] we do and what we don’t we do today to enable people to make those transitions easily.
The authors of this book could not have predicted the relevance of their work during the pandemic. Lockdown was a time when the biblical narrative of the tzara’at seemed to come to life: We all had to navigate life outside of the camp, far from the familiar routines and rhythms of our lives, and then find our way back in. And so many people in our society functioned as “priests,” leaving isolation to work in our hospitals, grocery stores, and schools, making their way into and out of the camp during a time when those transitions were truly treacherous.
At some point in life, almost all of us find ourselves experiencing a tough time, outside the camp. In those moments, may we be inspired by the rituals in our Torah, which teach us to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate our way back toward healing and wholeness, and to serve as priests—as sacred guides—for each other.