A heavy stream of traffic passed my house yesterday morning. It indicated a major accident on Park Presidio Boulevard, the north-south artery leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, a block and a half away. A Department of Parking & Traffic officer told me there had been an earlier accident, but that wasn’t the problem. It had long been cleared. A utility pole of some sort was leaning perilously near the roadway and no agency—the City, CalTrans, PG&E, AT&T—claimed responsibility for it. Traffic would be diverted until one did.
This may seem a strange lead-in to a brief discussion of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“bear seed”), but there’s a connection. Tazria is the fourth of ten weekly portions in the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), which mainly deals with priestly functions and holiness. Tazria begins with the ritual impurity—caused by blood—of a woman who gives birth. She may not touch any consecrated thing or enter the sanctuary for 33 days if she has a son, 66 days if a daughter. Then she must bring a lamb and a turtledove for offerings in order to achieve a state of ritual purity.
The portion continues with priestly examinations of several skin afflictions, commonly translated as leprosy, although these conditions do not equate to Hansen’s disease. It goes so far as to command a person with “leprosy” to cover the lower part of his face to his upper lip and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he moves about outside the Israelite camp which he may not enter.
These practices, which relate to the Temple and priestly functions, ended—if some ever were actually followed—in 70 CE with the destruction of the Second Temple. Because they are foreign to modern thinking, some Reform Jews hesitate to study Leviticus. But while we certainly would not—and cannot—follow them today, they offer us much to consider.
The Torah sought to guide a society of twelve confederated tribes then a surviving kingdom in living at peace with God, nature and each other. But as a religious document, it placed great emphasis not only on criminal and civil law but also on ritual purity. To be sure, the word kadosh (holy), which literally means separate, confuses many twenty-first century moderns. The terms of kadosh seem arbitrary. Why is someone with a spreading skin affliction impure but someone whose affliction covers the entire skin in a state of ritual purity? (I suggest because there’s no mixture of afflicted and clean skin—a separation).
Back to yesterday. After several hours, the involved agencies agreed on who should take responsibility. Rules and protocols might have been complex, but traffic flowed again on Park Presidio. Order trumped anarchy.
Who knows? Perhaps Washington, Sacramento and City Hall in San Francisco will find in Leviticus a somewhat oblique but nonetheless inspirational message: we can and must all work together to build a better community—from national in scale to local.
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