At this time last year, I had no idea how much Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora might mean to me today.    Both are often unfairly labelled as being uninteresting and irrelevant to contemporary Jewish life.    Many who do find meaning in the text point to the valuable lesson of watching one’s language as Lashon Harah (gossip) is often associated for being the sin that triggered the punishment that forms the major subject of both Parshiyot: Leprosy.

In fact, there are many other important lessons for contemporary times that one can glean from the twin Parshiyot.   Lessons of how stigma and isolation have always affected our communities and the reminder that we all have a role to play in reaching out to those who may feel banished to the margins…even when such banishment is temporary.

As one very involved with and attached to the national conversation on mental health, such associations have felt close to me for some time.   However, at this time last year I was not even close to prepared for how I’d be reading Leviticus in such a new light during this Kriyat HaTorah cycle.

It was Sunday Afternoon, May 31st 2015.   I had spent several hours moving, pushing, twisting, rearranging and, at times, forcing furniture into free spaces, nooks and corners within my apartment.   The only step left was to move my futon into my living room to make room for the new bed that was set to arrive the next day.    One final task to cap a productive day and then I could get ready for the black-tie event I was scheduled to attend that evening.   I moved the futon away from the walls, past the lamp and a few seconds later froze still in terror.   Entomology was never my subject but I knew those dark shadows scrambling away from the light meant one thing:  Trouble!

In the months that have passed, I’ve learned that virtually everyone who’s ever suspected they’ve had bed bugs goes through the same process I had:

1)  Google “Bedbugs”

2) Learn immediately that, despite a lifetime of thinking otherwise, it’s actually two words: “Bed Bugs”

3) Momentarily relax when one reads that bed bugs are often misidentified (for many of us this is the last relaxing moment for several months)

4) Compare pictures and realize that those creatures in your apartment almost definitely are bed bugs

5) Feel shame

6) Shake head in disbelief when one reads how difficult bed bugs are to get rid of

7) Shake head in disbelief again when one reads all the personal work that goes into getting rid of bed bugs

8) Shake head in disbelief again when one reads how long the process can take (and how much it can cost)

9) Shake head in disbelief yet again when one realizes yet again that there is a surprising lack of clear, accurate information as to how one dealing with bed bugs is supposed to navigate the process…Especially one living in an urban apartment building that is short on laundry facilities.

10) FREAK OUT/CRY/SCREAM

There’s a reason why bed bugs have been especially and directly related with anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidology.   Like the Biblical account of leprosy, bed bugs are not a mere annoyance: They are a trauma and, unfortunately, quite a stigmatic one at that.  And the overwhelming majority of the time, it is not at all the resident’s fault….I’ll repeat, if you are reading this because you are dealing with a bed bug infestation, regardless of what any landlord tries to tell you it is almost definitely NOT AT ALL YOUR FAULT!

The Torah’s picture of one afflicted with leprosy is one of isolation.   For me, my four month battle with bed bugs was possibly the loneliest experience of my life.  Everything from the self-conflicting instructions on how to prep my apartment to the tortuous fights with my landlords; From the exterminator who refused to tell me what chemicals they were using in my apartment (that didn’t work anyway) to the fear that I would be one of those who would still be dealing with the creatures two years later (I know of at least three people who had to suffer through multi-year infestations).  I was terrified that each treatment in my apartment (seven overall, by two different exterminators) would kill me and I was scared to leave my apartment for fear of spreading my infestation elsewhere (which actually rarely happens).   And the worst part was, like many others I was ashamed to talk publicly about my situation even though IT WASN’T MY FAULT!

Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora are always read in close proximity to Passover (shortly beforehand in leap years and within two weeks afterwards otherwise).

While the connection to the calendar may be coincidental, the overlap hit very home for me.    Several of the plagues, specifically the terror of finding frogs (though some translate the Hebrew word “Tzfardaim” as crocodiles) or locusts resonated far more deeply to me than ever before.   Of all the plagues it is actually that of the locusts that Pharoah likens to death (Exodus 10:17).

I’m told I’m not the only one who often doesn’t rush out to eat Pizza or even change-over my apartment at the conclusion of Passover.    Sometimes I need a few days to really transition back into my pre-Holiday, everyday state.    So it was when I received the clear to finally completely unpack my belongings…Some 4.5 months later.   As much as I wanted to have access to my full wardrobe, my books, my financial records, my guitar…it was several days before I was ready to complete the process and attempt a full return to normal.

In the months that have passed, I’ve had a chance to reflect on last Summer’s experience.   I won’t call myself lucky for having gone through it but in a strange way I found several aspects of the experience for which I am grateful:

* Learning that I am capable of overcoming some tough challenges, both physical and emotional that seemed unbearable at the time.

* Becoming an amateur community-organizer of sorts for an issue that is badly in need of better solutions on all levels.   At present, I am in contact with staffs of elected officials in two of the largest cities on the East Coast and I am hoping to ultimately move the issue to the national stage.

* Meeting some incredible people who are doing great work in the field and who taught me more about myself than I ever expected.   Should you ever find yourself dealing with a bed bug issue in the NYC-area, I cannot say enough good things about Pest Prep NYC (for prep services) and Pest Pro (for detection and extermination).   In addition to being amazing at their jobs, they REALLY care about their clients.   I also feel indebted to the amazing Dr. Dawn Gouge from the University of Arizona who is engaging in essential work covering the intersection of bed bugs and mental health (and I am humbled to be named as a special collaborator on her project).

And perhaps most importantly:

* I’d like to think (and I REALLY hope) that I emerged as both a stronger and a better person.  A person who had gained some additional sensitivities to others, especially the many among us who feel unable to ask for assistance of any form that they may desperately need.

Exactly one book to the Chapter after the commencement of Parshat Tazria, we read of an actual case  of someone afflicted with the disease (Numbers 12).    Interestingly,once Miriam is stricken with leprosy, the text does not focus on the minute details of inspection, detection and cleansing that dominated Leviticus but rather on the reaction of those close to her.   Aaron appeals to Moses, Moses appeals to G-d and the entire people wait for her until such time that she is able to rejoin.

Today we may know few people who are stricken with leprosy but we likely encounter people every day who privately feel like lepers.   As we move from Parshat Tazria to Parshat Metzora and from Parshat Metzora to Pesach, may we all be blessed with new awareness for all those struggling with afflictions, modern day or ancient and be sensitive to those struggling to find solutions which may not be as simple or linear as one might hope or expect.

Oh and I’ve come to learn that there are far more people dealing with the plague of bed bugs than I ever realized.  Many of them will need to hear it, so I’ll say it again.  If you find yourself in that situation, stay strong and please remember: IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT!!