Once there was a stuffed rabbit who yearned to be Real. His Boy loved him so dearly that he became Real in the eyes of the Boy — but when living bunnies caught sight of him, they laughed, because they knew he was only a toy, unable to run and play with the real rabbits.
(Perhaps you recognize this story, by Margery Williams.)
One day the Boy became sick, and the stuffed rabbit stayed with him throughout his illness. It was uncomfortable and hot but the rabbit did not budge, because he knew his Boy needed him.
When the fever broke, the doctor instructed the family to burn everything which had been in contact with the boy — his sheets, his clothes, anything which might carry the germs of scarlet fever. Of course, this meant the bunny, too.
So the bunny was taken to a place outside the house along with everything else which might be contagious, and set aside for the burning. But before the gardener arrived with the matches and kerosene, the bunny wept a real tear, and from that tear arose a fairy, and the fairy told the bunny that he was truly Real now: not only in the eyes of the Boy who had loved him so dearly, but real now in the eyes of everyone.
Why am I telling you this story? Because of our Torah portion. Tazria–Metzora is full of blood, childbirth, leprosy, eruptive afflictions, and questions of purity. This week’s Torah portion takes us on a deep dive into the binary of tahor and tamei — usually translated as pure and impure, though I don’t like that rendering. I resonate with Rabbi Rachel Adler’s interpretation that being tamei means being charged-up, electrified, with a kind of uncanny life-and-death energy.
Have you ever been sick, and felt both physically and spiritually different from the “well” people around you? Have you ever done the holy work of the chevra kadisha, lovingly preparing a body for burial, and come away feeling that the world is in strangely sharp focus for a time? Have you ever given birth, or witnessed a birth, and felt as though you were touching the Infinite? Have you ever visited a hospital ward, and come away feeling that the hospital is a holy place — and also a place which gives you the shivers, with its reminders of mortality? That’s tum’ah: a temporary state of wakefulness to the Mystery of life and death.
This Torah portion speaks frequently of tzara’at — usually translated as leprosy or as an “eruptive plague.” Tzara’at is something with which a human being can be afflicted, and it is also something with which a house can be afflicted. In either case, the priest comes to examine, and there is a quarantine period, and if the house cannot be cleansed, it is torn down and taken to a place of tum’ah outside the city.
Although our Torah text comes from a time many centuries before germ theory, it speaks of contagion, and of whether and how it is possible to shed tum’ah and become tahor again.
Reading this Torah portion this year, I found myself thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit. His Boy contracted scarlet fever, and afterwards the rabbit was deemed contagious and was cast away. He became, in the language of Torah, tamei.
But it was through his encounter with sickness that he was able to become truly Real: not only Real in the eyes of his Boy, but Real in the eyes of the world. It was through the experience of being tamei that he was able to emerge into a state of taharah and to become truly alive.
And the same is true for us. Every life contains encounters with illness, contagion, and death. But when we take the risk of loving one another even though we know that life contains loss — when we oscillate with one another between sickness and health — that’s how we become Real.
Becoming Real, as the Skin Horse in the nursery reminded the Velveteen Rabbit, is not always comfortable. Usually it involves being loved until one becomes shabby and threadbare. Becoming Real comes at a price, and that price is willingness to be in the world, to age, to have one’s sharp edges rubbed off or one’s plush fur become tattered.
But once you are Real, you know that your fur growing shabby isn’t the most important thing. Once you are Real, says the Skin Horse, you can never be ugly.
Or, phrased a different way: once we are Real, we know deep in our hearts that in the eyes of the One Who made us, we are beautiful; we are perfect; we are loved; just the way we are.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.