Leprosy's Haunting Relevance (Parshat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

04/20/2015 10:44 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

This week's double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, contains a lengthy disquisition on how the priests in the times of the ancient Temple were to deal with people presenting a large range of luridly coloured spots and sores associated with tzara'at (usually translated as leprosy); understandably, it has a reputation as the portion about which rabbis least want to preach. But there is little more important in human society than our attitudes toward illness and those who suffer from it. Albeit in oblique ways, the Torah touches on issues that remain as sensitive and challenging for us as they were when it was written.

How, for instance, are the symptoms of the sufferer first disclosed? A person on whom eruptions on the skin turn into what appears to be leprosy "is brought" to the priest; the biblical text does not explain why or by whom. It could be an act of kindness, such as when a person today is afraid to return to the doctor to receive the results of tests and a thoughtful friend says, "I'll come with you" -- or, in contrast, a form of removal like the police might escort a suspect, to ensure that the infectious person does not remain in the midst of the community. Serious illness can evoke both compassion and fear.

The most frequent decision the priest has to make regarding a person with suspected tzara'at is whether or not to send them outside of the camp (either a form of quarantine, or ostracism, or both) -- depending on the exact appearance of the symptoms -- and whether a further period of separation is warranted or the sufferer can be declared healed and reintroduced back into the camp. The priest's role is thus ambiguous. He is at once the guardian of the many against infection by the few and the healer who reintegrates people into society.

As for the person who is ill, if it becomes clear that the disease is indeed tsaarat, the sufferer must remain "alone outside the camp" as long as the affliction lasts:

The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.'

He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

The text brings to mind the leper's bell of the Middle Ages, with which passers-by would be warned to keep their distance. There could have been little more wretched than the lonely fate of the person who was compelled to sound it, thus compounding his own isolation.

In the Talmud, the status of the outcast leper is discussed in parallel with that of both the person under a temporary decree of excommunication and the mourner (Mo'ed Katan: 14b-15b). The first comparison is disturbing. Has the leper done something wrong to deserve such a sentence? Is illness a punishment? It is a deeply human need to ascribe causes. When we ourselves become ill, a gnawing 'why?' is sometimes liable to combine with a free-floating sense of guilt to form a preoccupation: "What have I done to merit this?" If it is someone else who is sick, we may be tempted to look for an explanation of their misfortune as the consequence of something they have done -- thus furnishing ourselves with some assurance that a similar fate will not overtake us. Reason and compassion may counter such trains of thought, but they can haunt us nevertheless.

As for the parallel to the mourner, those excluded from ordinary life by serious illness face serious loss. In both cases, the fictions of permanence and invulnerability, on which we depend to go about our everyday affairs in spite of our knowledge that they are indeed only fictions, are at least temporarily gone. Sometimes other precious dreams are more permanently out of reach, such as being able to have children, living long enough to enjoy grandchildren, or remaining fit enough to pursue a career to a coveted goal. A hoped-for cure or recovery might eventually restore both health and dreams, but the very uncertainty accompanying that speculative hope can constitute and represent a profound change.

The person who is fortunate enough to be healed may return to the camp following a complex ritual of sacrifices. The Torah introduces this process by explaining that it applies "when the plague of leprosy has been cured from the leper" (Leviticus 14:3). This wording is puzzling: If the persons concerned are now well, why still refer to them as lepers? They are again the same as everyone else; why should they continue to be defined by their former affliction?

Yet for a person who has passed through serious illness, there is never a total return to the status quo ante; reality is never again exactly the same as it was before. There remains a greater awareness of vulnerability, mortality, uncertainty. Often there is also a broader awareness and a deeper compassion, such as in the person who says, "Before I was ill, I didn't notice these things, but I see them now: the woman wearing a hat who never used to do so before, because she doesn't want people to see that she's lost her hair; the man unobtrusively slipping out his pills under the table and taking them with his coffee."

Even after we are healed, the experience of serious illness seriously transforms us, and the Torah's seemingly arcane rituals serve as a timeless reminder of the steps on that transforming journey.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.