“Orit!” “Ori-i-i-t!” Her mother was calling, but Orit was preoccupied. “Orit Rivkah bat Mushi!” shouted her mother—the use of her full name indicating a growing consternation. “Where are you?!”
“Coming, Ima!” Orit called back. No child would dream of avoiding a parent’s call—for if they did, how would they ever grow up to be parents themselves, and take their parents’ place in looking after the welfare of the ancestors and in carrying out God’s charge? But Orit had been staring at a spot on her skin, wondering what to make of this recent change—or apparently recent, since all she knew for sure was that she hadn’t noticed it before now.
There, on her upper arm near her shoulder (and usually covered by her tunic) was this splotchy area: a patch that seemed recessed, lower than the surrounding skin.
And if that wasn’t unusual enough, within that patch, she saw that the hairs on her skin were different. (But whoever notices or pays attention to the hairs on one’s arm? Day after day, those little hairs are always there; and they don’t really do anything.) Yes, those hairs within that patch were white, prompting her to realize—due only to the now-striking contrast—that the surrounding hairs had all along been black.
As she gingerly stroked the affected area, the sensation of touch and of being touched were no different from the rest of her upper arm. “Still, it’s odd,” she said to herself. Well, at least it didn’t itch—like that bite she’d sustained last year—from a snake or scorpion or something—which had puffed up into a huge welt, perhaps as much because of Orit’s scratching as anything else.
“Ima,” said Orit, who was now standing in front of their goatskin tent, “Can you come out here and look at this?”
The earnestness in Orit’s voice was sufficient to override her mother’s consternation. And thus Orit never did learn what chore it was that her mother had intended to assign her.
“Oh,” said her mother, after having inspected the odd patch. “Well, I guess that we’ll have to summon a priest.” “The priest? Why, Ima?”
Orit could see her mother searching for a way to explain the situation. “Because … ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” Which seemed like an odd thing to say, especially because her mother of course knew that Orit had actually never seen a fence. Sure, she’d heard stories about them, from back when her clan was living in Egypt. But here in the wilderness? No fences here. “What do priests have to do with fences?” Orit asked. “Priests maintain the boundaries of our community, so they are like fence-menders,” replied her mother. “And they protect our relationship with God, which also involves a kind of fence—between us and the Deity.”
Given that the sun was about to set, she dispatched her oldest son to the Sanctuary, bearing the message that he would return the next morning to guide a priest to their domicile, so as to conduct an inspection. And indeed, shortly after sunrise, Orit’s brother brought a priest in tow. Initially, he said nothing. Orit’s mother bowed in deference and pointed to her daughter’s shoulder. The priest knelt down and examined the spot in question. He looked up at Orit’s mother.
“Tamei hu (It is impure),” he pronounced, referring to the lesion, which he called tzaraat.
Orit’s eyes grew wide, for she associated the term tamei with what transpired after her grandmother had died in bed. The whole tent was turned upside down—and then there was extra bathing, and laundering, and sprinkling, and so forth. But Orit had not heard of tzaraat. She said nothing. Instead, she exhaled and inhaled deeply, which she always found calming.
“And what now does my lord require of your servants?” her mother inquired. Orit could not tell whether her mother already knew what to expect.
The priest looked directly into the girl’s eyes. “It’s time for you to live outside of the camp, on your own, for a while.”
“On my own!” said Orit, now unable to contain herself. Her concern wasn’t a matter of her age. She could fend for herself. She had been taking her turn shepherding the family’s flock of sheep and goats for more than a year already. She could ward off wild animals, as needed.
It’s just that, well, nobody lived alone. Life was all about looking after the interests of one’s close relatives and one’s clan. Anyway, the effort to make ends meet required combining the specialized labor contributions of a whole family; no one could survive for long on one’s own. Everybody was needed to pitch in.
So for good reason, Orit had never heard of camping trips or wilderness expeditions or spiritual retreats or hermits. Such things just didn’t exist. “On my own—” she repeated aloud. “Why, sir?” “Ah, children ask so many questions!” the priest declared to nobody in particular as he stood up, although he didn’t actually seem to mind being asked. He searched for an answer that might address her fear. He replied, “Because we need reliable fences: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
There was that phrase again! Orit now supposed that it was some kind of proverb. Not that it made any more sense to her than before; although she did find it strangely reassuring. “On my own—for how long?” “We’ll see. It depends on what happens there on your arm.” Not long thereafter, the priest and Orit—with a full pack on her back— were walking out of the camp, with her calling out T’meiah! (“Impure!”) as they strode. Despite her trepidation, Orit was somewhat amused to see how people scrambled to get out of the way. They continued beyond the camp’s boundaries, and found a suitable spot.
The priest helped her to pitch the smallest tent that Orit had ever seen— it was big enough for just one person. But in it she now had a mat for sleeping, a waterskin, and a supply of prepared foodstuffs. The priest started to leave; then he suddenly turned around. “Orit, listen carefully1: Tzaraat might have robbed you of the blissful belief that tomorrow stretches into forever. In exchange, you are granted the vision to see each day as precious.” “Granted the vision?!” Orit echoed, trying to grasp the concept. “Yes—to see each day as precious,” the priest repeated, this time more deliberately.
He continued: “As a gift to be used wisely and richly.” She was quiet but clearly giving her full attention—which he thought was hardly surprising under the circumstances. “And no one can rob you of that new vision. No one can take that away.”
Now, priests were normally known for their silence; their actions generally spoke much louder than any words could do. (It was the Levites who generated sounds—mostly by singing and with musical instruments.) But this priest, out here beyond the boundaries of the camp, was positively voluble— even if his words were somewhat opaque. Perhaps it was because he could see that he had a willing audience, or perhaps that it was the effect of the wilderness—this was, after all, only the second time in his own life that he had been this far from the Israelite encampment. He shifted his weight, and then said:
“When I come back, in one week: if the patch has not grown bigger, or if it has begun to resolve, then we will bring you back slowly into camp. Along the way, we will continue to deal with surfaces: your skin; your body hair that covers your skin; and your clothing, which covers both your skin and your hair. All of these things are surfaces—but they are also fences.”
The priest stopped, because he thought that he was finished speaking. He noticed that the sounds and the smells of the wilderness were quite distinct from what he was used to. He surprised himself by finding more to add. “In the meantime,” he said, “I bid you enjoy this gift of impermanence.
“Impermanence,” he continued, with a twinkle in his eye, “is now yours forever, or for as long as your impermanent self remains within that impermanent skin—whichever comes first.”
Unfortunately, my source text breaks off at this point, and no other ancient witnesses are extant to enable me to tell you what happened next in Orit’s life. So I will leave it to your imagination.
© 2015 Rabbi David E. S. Stein2 revised from the version told at Temple Mishkon Tephilo Venice, CA (Iyar 5775)
- 1. Here the words that I attribute to the priest are adapted from a publication by the California Department of Public Health, “A Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment” (2010), citing the National Cancer Institute—but which speak of cancer rather than tzaraat.
- 2. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by- nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.