Earlier in the week, I called my mother, and when I told her I was experiencing stress due to two large papers and an upcoming exam, she reminded me - in the most Jewish-motherly way possible - to take my B-vitamins. Whenever experience emotional valleys or points of high stress, anxiety, or tension, her answer remains the same; the key to serenity, inner peace, balance, and what have you lies in the B-vitamins. Per usual, my skepticism prevailed that a tablet could suddenly make the forthcoming workload that much easier, but in the last fourteen days, I took my vitamins three times, a record high since leaving the house.
In this week’s Torah portion, God assigns a medical role to the Levite priesthood. He demands of Aaron and the other priests to examine the skin of the Israelites on occasion. Under several conditions, skin with hair, paleness, redness, or other discoloration deems a person as someone suffering from leprosy and, thereby, unclean In addition, God proclaims women unclean for the first week directly after entering labor and delivering a newborn. The Torah prescribes that these unclean specimens separate themselves from the group until they are “clean”, and they must offer a subsequent sacrifice before the priests to regain a purified status.
This portion prompted thought about God’s right over human bodies.While as a practical matter these laws probably related more to how to survive in close quarters in a time preceding modern medicine, their modern conation asserts God’s authority over the human body in a way that classifies it as pure or impure, clean or unclean. Does an artist have a say in the conditions of his or her pieces after selling the works to a gallery? In particular, the Torah asserts that a female in the midst of one of the most joyous moments of her life, the birth of her own flesh and blood, is impure.
I always pushed back on my mother’s claims about vitamins and supplements. Prior to taking the vitamins, I identified zero major deficits in my physical and mental conditions. The entire industry seemed excessive, going beyond what was necessary for my intact survival. Just last week, I picked up a number for the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in Washington, DC at the Washington Health & Fitness Expo, and among the vendors with the latest creams, apparel, and gadgets for the ultimate “fitness” experience, I questioned the meaning healthfulness. In a similar mindset as reading Parashat Tazria, I asked myself, “Who profits from my state of ‘well-being’? Who sets the rules for when my body is at its most optimal condition” In other words, I refused to allow some vendors to define cleanliness or uncleanliness.
Of course, while reading this post, she is probably already preparing a counterclaim about the “science” behind her advice and the industry as a whole. Granted, modern medicine presents many benefits to the whole of humankind. Manufactured and monetized medicine, on the contrary, directly contradicts how this Torah portion functions in a modern Jewish context. Regardless of the degree of observation, Jews in the twenty-first century do not visit a local rabbi for a leprosy diagnosis or for oversight of a sacrifice to reconcile this condition’s uncleanness. This portion, then, speaks more about collective concern than the literal medical context.
In times of emotional or physical change, we are marked in some way. Our moods, faces, vital signs, and bodies adapt to our health status, and as a community, when we recognize these signs of fluctuation, we can classify disease as a personal or collective matter. Judaism, though, demands that the highest leaders, the ones most closely connected to God’s Holy of Holies, manage these affairs. Transitively, when someone is “marked”, the Torah portion claims that we take note of these conditions, bringing God’s presence into distressed lives. As a community, we do not treat one another by selling prescriptions, referrals, and endless tests that wrack up deductible payments. Rather, we see one another in a true sense of disarray, and like the Levites’ oversight of the sacrifices, we manage one another’s affairs to return to a more wholesome state. The health and fitness expo so jarringly made apparent the motivations of certain members of the healthcare industry; those vendors wanted to make a profit by the day’s end, constructing problems that did not previously exist in the minds of their customers, or dare I say, prey. Judaism, in a very different way, via this portion about leprosy and about cleanliness, demands that bubbe offer to make matzah ball soup or that we shlepp one another to the doctor.
Well-being is not something that can Jewishly be conceived as pennies, dollars, and dimes. Cleanliness in the community calls Jews together; God’s authority over our bodies exists as our shared responsibility for one another’s condition. Whether or not my mother’s field recognizes the difference between healthCARE and health INC., I recognize that when she so urgently stresses me, as her son, to take my B-vitamins, she is living Jewishly, for that incessant suggestion comes from a place of love, empathy, and hope for her role in my personal reparation. Building off the example of our relationship, we need to reexamine how we take care of one another and ourselves. Before we enter the vast network of this cream or that study, let’s check one another for “signs of leprosy”.