Priests, Healing and the Holocaust

04/09/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Jews throughout the world began this week by commemorating Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many of us took time to reflect on the beauty and tragedy of the lives of our loved ones who lived during that calamitous period of human history -- both those who perished and those who survived.

At a communal event I attended in Boston, a woman relayed a powerful message from her father, a Holocaust survivor, who had recently died. He said that even in the darkest, most dehumanizing of situations, there are always some good people. Needless to say, there were countless people throughout Europe and elsewhere who acted in horrific ways during the Nazi reign of terror, but there were also those people who hid Jews, who paid for Jews to escape across borders, who stood up for what was right at great personal risk.

In reading this week's Torah portion, with its long and complicated instructions about tzara'at (leprosy), there was one character that stood out to me: the kohen, priest. It is the priest who accompanies (the word levi, the tribe of priests, is connected to the Hebrew word "accompany") those who have been stricken by this malady. Ovadiah Sforno (1475-1550), a mediaeval Italian commentator, writes that the priest served as a guide and confidant to the leper, attending to both his physical and spiritual needs.

Like the priest, the heroes of the Holocaust escorted those in need through the most difficult moments in their lives. These brave souls accompanied people with care and compassion, providing them with food and shelter, and giving them reason to believe that salvation was possible.

It is important to remember that the distinction of priest and Israelite is a relatively new one at this point in the narrative of the Bible, and that not long before these laws were given the priest was a regular part of the community. They traveled side by side with their brothers and sisters through the journey from Egypt to Canaan. Such was also the case in the years preceding the Holocaust. Jews had been accepted into modern European societies and were thriving. That all changed when Hitler came to power, and the righteous among the nations suddenly found themselves in a new position of power, responsibility and danger.

What is remarkable is that in the story of the ancient priests, God elevates otherwise normal Israelites to the status of priest, and therefore healer. In the case of the Holocaust era heroes, they too heard a call -- from God or personal conscience -- to serve those in need. They had to "anoint" themselves and do what they knew to be right, either publicly or privately.

When looking at our parshah (portion) in the wider context of the book of Leviticus, we see that the laws of tzara'at represent an extended parenthetical aside from the disturbing story that highlighted last week's portion and that continues in next week's reading, namely, the mysterious death of two of Aaron the High Priest's sons due to their offering of a "alien fire" to God (10:1). Thus, our double portion can be seen as a Divine reprieve for Aaron, both to give him space to mourn his sons before the narrative continues, and to remind him of the crucial healing work that is his unique duty as the High Priest.

Leviticus is teaching us more broadly, then, that the holiest of work, even when we are suffering under the burden of our own grief, is to help bring healing to others. For Jews alive today, there is no better example of this than the work of those righteous among the nations who put their lives on the line to help their Jewish friends or neighbors during the Holocaust.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.