Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat

lia rosen

Jews celebrate the New Year in the fall, still, Nissan is considered the first month of the year because it is the first month in which we were a free people. In midrash and legend, the first Rosh Hodesh was marked by Moses as the preparations for the Exodus began in earnest. If you didn’t begin spring cleaning on the day after Purim (some people really do this!), this week is a good time to begin to rid the house of hametz/bread and any of the things you wish to discard.

Nissan is also the month, according to legend, in which Moses’ sister Miriam, died. Chabad.org records this piece of “Jewish History” as “Miriam’s Passing (1274 BCE) Miriam, the sister of Moses, passed away at the age of 126 on the 10th of Nissan of the year 2487 from creation (1274 BCE) — 39 years after the Exodus and exactly one year before the Children of Israel entered the Holy Land.” I love the exactness of this (although the date of Nissan 10 is disputed).

This week’s parsha, Tazria, describes how to diagnose and treat a skin disease, tzaraat, which later afflicts Miriam. This connection between Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Miriam, and tzaraat is rich material for poetry and drash. Here are a few; we’ll share more on Saturday morning, hope you can make it.

Snow/Scorpions & Spiders

by Girls in Trouble

Well my mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother
But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
So when he said You’re banished,
Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say
The scorpions and the spiders
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade
Together in silence they watched
As the sun crossed the sky
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone
at the top of the mountain
Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean
If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice
And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your G-d should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.
[Suggested by Rabbi Alana]
Poem in Praise of Menstruation

by Lucille Clifton

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon          if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta          if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain          if there is
a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel          if there is in
the universe such a river          if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
[suggested by Margo Schlanger]

Sent Out of the Camp

A d’var Torah for Parashat Tazria by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

This week’s parashah deals with a somewhat puzzling disease, called tzara’at, often translated as “leprosy.” As the Torah describes it, it’s an affliction that could appear on human skin, on clothes, or even infect houses.

It’s not clear if the affliction is truly physical, as Leviticus seems to indicate, or if it’s a physical manifestation of spiritual distress, as a number of commentators suggest. However, either way, the solution to the problem is isolation. The afflicted party is shut up for a week or more, forced to live outside the camp, away from the rest of his or her community.

On the one hand, this quarantine is traditionally understood not as a punishment, but rather a time to recover and protect others from infection. One could also imagine it as something of a retreat—a time for someone who is physically or spiritually unwell to recuperate and regain strength.

On the other, well, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like to be told that you must be cast away from loving, human connection as a result of contracting an ailment or stumbling interpersonally. What kind of impact did being sent away from the camp have on the afflicted?

Between 80,000-100,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day, many for rather minor infractions. Despite the fact that more than 15 hours in solitary confinement may begin to have an adverse impact on a prisoner’s mental health, the average sentence in solitary can run, depending on the state, anywhere from 23 months to 7.5 years, and longer for those on death row. Many argue that, in light of the significant mental harm that it causes, solitary confinement should be classified as a form of torture.

Joe Giarratano, a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison, reflects:

Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally; solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my… stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.

Many traditional commentators attempt to cast the metzora, the one with this strange Biblical leprosy, as responsible for their own suffering—for example, citing a tendency towards malicious gossip as the reason the person needed to be exiled. But there’s another textual tradition that regards them with a softer eye.

For, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) tells us, no less than the Messiah will be found sitting among the lepers, and will be known as “the leper scholar.” That is to say, the one who will bring healing and redemption to the world aligns her- or himself with those who have been forced into isolation. And the Sifra, the ancient midrash on Leviticus, tells us that, even in the lepers’ isolation, “the Divine Presence still abides among them.”

It’s on God to be with those who suffer. It’s on us to prevent unnecessary suffering, insofar as we are able. When we push for just and humane reforms to our contemporary prison system, we engage in the work of the Messiah.