Tameh, Tameh

Apr 4, 2022
by admin / LNCLN

This week’s parsha, Tazria, is primarily concerned with instructions to the priests for diagnosing and responding to a contagious skin disease known as tzara’at.  At the end of a bunch of details for how to tell the difference between tzara'at and other kinds of rashes and instructions about isolation periods and post-recovery return to work procedures which feel sadly much more relevant than they used to, there is a strange detail that always jumps out at me. We are told that a person who has a serious case of this disease that doesn’t seem to be going away is declared as having the status of “tameh”, a kind of ritual status which requires separation from the temple and sacred objects and which also applies to people undergoing healthy normal bodily experiences like ejaculation and menstruation. In this case, however, very differently, the person who is declared tameh undergoes certain rituals of mourning such as uncovering their head and wearing sackcloth, and separates not only from the ritual life of the community, but from the community entirely. They must move outside the camp indefinitely until they become well. But here’s the detail that always grabs me: in addition to having to leave their family and community and isolate for the duration of their illness, we are told that this person must go around calling out “Tameh! Tameh!” declaring their status out loud, over and over.


But… why? The medieval biblical commentator, Rashi, gives us what is probably the most straightforward reading: “They must proclaim aloud that they are tameh, so that people may distance themselves from them”[1]. But this has always struck me as both unnecessary, and cruel. Unnecessary, because this guy has already moved outside the camp to live far away from everyone else. How many people are accidentally dropping by to visit the isolation area? If people with tzara’at are obviously living physically distanced from the community, would people really need this additional reminder? And cruel, because - poor dude. They are already sick. They are already separated from their loved ones and broader society. They are already engaged in all these mourning practices. Now we’re asking the to walk around all the time yelling to remind others and, most cruelly, themself how crappy their situation is?


The rabbis of the Talmud provide a really different read. They say, in fact, almost the opposite. According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the person with tzara’at needs to call out “tameh, tameh” because they are living so far away from the rest of the community, and the other healthy Israelites might so easily forget about them and their terrible suffering. The one with tzara’at screams out to prevent a situation of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The other Israelites may need to be physically removed from them and their contagious disease, with the unfortunate side effect that they are unable to see them, but they must never forget they exist. As the person yells they will hear their voice carrying over the dessert, closing the distance between the sufferer and the community. In the words of the Talmud, “They will announce their suffering to the public, and the community will be moved to pray and beg that the sick one receive mercy.[2]”


I want to make two points about this interpretation. First, in terms of what the rabbis are doing here: we should all be blessed to feel both so deeply rooted in our tradition and so empowered within it that when we come across texts which seem to demand a practice which seems to us unnecessary and cruel we nether feel we are required to blindly continue to thoughtlessly apply it nor that we must abandon and flee from it. Rather, I hope we will have the strength, love of Torah, and creativity of the rabbis to continue to dig in our tradition until that very seemingly cruel text can push us to greater ethical heights.


Secondly, I want to offer us a question: who are the people who we are so separated from in our society that we cannot see them or their suffering? And let’s notice, not just that we happen to be separated from them, but that there are structures and norms in place designed to keep them, and their suffering, from our attention. What could we do to find and elevate the voices of those people, to make sure that even and especially when they are not geographically proximate we can still hear them as they tell us about their pain?


And if we did that, what would we be moved to do?


[1] Rashi, comment to Leviticus 13:45

[2] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 67a