Thursday, 23 Apr 2020

Written by Tali Artman Partock

Some three weeks ago, one of the members of my household developed a persistent dry cough. At once, even our hard-earned lockdown routines broke down. The fields became a memory, and milk – something we can live without.  As the days went by and the illness persisted, we called our local surgery. A very kind doctor video called us and told us that yes, it is probably Corona so we should not leave the house at all, and in the same breath that when our 14 days of isolation are over, we must assume that it was not Corona after all and keep on guard. We were formally chased by a ghost we were told not to believe in. After about 10 days, the feeling-much-better and ready to rock-and-roll patient demanded to go for a walk. “You cough in public and they’ll crucify you,” I gave a warning, to which the answer was: “I am not a leper”. Coming to think of it, I told her-now-welling-up-eyes, you kind of are.

Lev 13:46 says of the leper “He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” And it is not only the isolation, that make you a leper, or the fear of the danger your little body might be hiding for others, or the look of horror on the passers-by faces when they see the sign ‘self-isolating, please leave any deliveries on the doorstep’. While these are bad, it is the uncertainty, the doctors ordering you to behave as if you are a leper and then pretend you never were one that enters the realm of what Freud called the uncanny. The familiar that turns dangerous, in an ambiguous enough way for us to alternate between believing that our father’s friend who comes often is just a bit quirky, and being certain that secretly, he is trying to take your soul. Am I a leper? Do I have Coronavirus? It only takes a quick look at Google trends to notice that just like the ancients, every spot on our skin, every itch in our throat send us to our digital prophet to ask, are we clean? Just to hear the words of Leviticus again: “And if the priest shall look, and behold, the plague be not spread in the garment…or in any thing of skin; Then the priest shall command that they wash the things wherein the plague is, and he shall shut it up seven days more (Lev 13:53-4). Living with ambiguity for another seven days, as family members are advised to do, waiting to see if everyone in the family becomes a leper too, or you could all go free is challenging. In the long beautiful days of the sunniest April in the last 361 years or so, which we spent indoors waiting, I started feeling a tingle. Something familiar but strange, a knowledge that I have felt this way before, as if awaiting a verdict, or for something to be over, but fearing it at the same time, fearing that even after it ends life would never be the same became prominent. A beautiful photo of the new-born Noah Taylor (mazal tov to our fellow student rabbi Lev, now a father, and to Hannah, now a mother) made the penny drop. It was those lase weeks of pregnancy, when days grew longer and nights shorter, when every moment was full of expectation and then disappointment that I recalled. The existence in the hollow space of uncertainty expanding from the core like white ripples wiping out anything on their way. Did the baby kick? What would it be like? Is it ok in there? How much longer can I bear this? Is this ever going to end? Would it kill me? that thing that lives within my body but is not me, that thing which was put in me in one split second and keeps feeding on my flesh, which is destined to leave my body but not without scars, changing who I am and what I am forever, a process over which I have no control. The logic of Tazria-Metzora – our parashah this week, called in translation ‘the pregnant and the leper,’ suddenly became clear. What the pregnant woman and the leper had in common was not only a possessed body, familiar yet uncontrollable, but the existence of the time beyond time, the bending, stretching time of the anxious wait. Just like the lepers and the pregnant, coming out of our temporary estrangement from our bodies, recovering means to us coming back into society, a process as complicated as being apart from it. Having no priests, we turn to our scientist asking – are we there yet? Have we fulfilled our vows? Are we truly different today to what we were yesterday? The elaborate rituals of Tazria-Metzora suddenly make sense. The woman, isolating for seven days after the birth of boy, can only come to the holy after thirty three ‘clean days’ and bringing a sacrifice, after the one body became a sound two. The leper must shave his hair, and wash, and purify and bring a sacrifice, as the priest touches his body publicly to show that the ordeal is over. The priest is there to reassure us that we are again who we used to be, that we can trust our bodies once more, that the thing which lived inside us is now a separate being, chasing away the horror of staying ill, staying pregnant, staying in our leprosy and our exclusion forever. Being healthy, as it becomes ever more clear, is being part of a community as much as it is being one with ourselves. And so, the parashah has one more lesson to teach us, that the days will come when we will wash ourselves, and wash our proper-clothes again, and finally get our hair cut, and our doctor-priests will give us a Corona antibody test that will tell us if it was indeed the virus or just our shadow that was chasing us, and they will shake our hands without fear. And we will hold our freedom like a new-born baby, full of love, relief and hope.


Tali Artman Partock LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.