by Rabbi Shefa Gold
These parshiot are concerned with the delicate times when one’s condition necessitates a period of separation from communal life. How does that separation happen and how is that person re-integrated into the community?
Tazria begins by discussing the condition of a woman immediately after childbirth. She is blessed with a time of separation and then given a path for returning. I understand this condition not only in the context of childbirth, but in regards to the creative process. During a time of intense creative output, as with childbirth, a person steps outside of the normal boundaries of time and space.
She touches the realm between the worlds where ayin (nothing) gives birth to yesh (existence). In that place between worlds she is completely taken up by the process of birth. The artist lives inside the poem, painting, or song, and the rest of the world, for a time falls away. The blessing of Tazria is in knowing that there will again be a way of returning to the community, to normal life. The time of alienation, which is necessary for the creative process to unfold, is also finite. The artist may return and bring with her the riches that she has mined and be re-integrated, welcomed back and appreciated by her community.
During the process of re-entry, the mother, or artist brings two offerings, a chatat and an olah. The chatat is the offering that celebrates the purification from unintentional sin. If during my time of separation and focused creativity I have by necessity neglected other parts of life, I can be cleansed of guilt and blame, and with the offering of the chatat be re-connected with the life of the community.
The olah, the burnt offering is completely consumed by fire, completely given. After creating something wonderful and being consumed by that process there is a danger of identifying your ego with your creation. When that creation is praised you may become inflated; when it is criticized you may become defensive. The offering of the olah is a way of completely giving your creation to God, to the wholeness of the cosmos.
There are many times in life when it may be necessary to seclude oneself for a time. Tzara’at , which is usually translated as leprosy, can be understood as a difficult inner psycho-spiritual passage that manifests as a disturbance on the surface. Someone with this condition needs to separate himself from the community for a time in order to pay close attention to those inner changes, which are the causes of the outer confusion. At a time of inner growth, it might feel like your life has become too small. There is a chafing or an irritability, and it is time to ‘leave the camp’. It is time to go on a retreat. The blessing of Metzora comes to us as the force of re-integration, symbolized by the priest, as it reaches out to you in your place of alienation, recognizes your transformation and brings you back to the community. In the ritual of re-entry, two birds are brought. One is killed, to symbolize the old self that has died; and one is set free in the open country to express the self re-born flying free into an expanded life.
The Spiritual Challenge
Often, a person’s growth happens on the inside before it finds its manifestation in the outer world. The spiritual challenge is in navigating this awkward time when there is a dissonance between inner and outer. During this time the two realities must be reconciled. It is an uncomfortable time because there is a tendency to resist change and that resistance can manifest in the physical body. Retreat time is required in order to attend to and integrate the inner changes.
The spiritual challenge of Tazria / Metzora is in knowing when to separate yourself from the community and in knowing how to return.
The separation depends on having a community/relationship/family who honor and trust the process. This means that they understand the process of retreat as necessary and valuable to the life of the community. When someone ‘leaves the camp’ and does the inner work that is calling them, when they return they will be fully available and have an integrated wholeness to give back to the community.
The process of retreat requires paying attention to the subtle messages of the soul in an atmosphere of spaciousness, without the everyday distractions and demands of the outer life. For some it may seem selfish to take this time for yourself, but it really is a requirement in the life of service.
Guidance for Practice
Plan a one-day retreat for yourself. Prepare food in advance, shut off the phone, clear your space or go out into Nature. Leave the ‘camp’ of your normal life. Spend the day in prayer and meditation, listening to the promptings of your heart.
Arrange for a friend to welcome you back at the end of the day and listen as you articulate and integrate your experience. Find two stones. As you hold one of them describe the part of yourself that you have outgrown, that is dying, that has ceased to be useful. Then with all your strength throw that stone away as far as you can. Hold the other stone and describe the place in yourself that is new, that wants to grow in your life. Keep that stone and place it on your altar as a reminder of this day. Complete the ritual by sharing a sacred meal together.