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Illness: Banishment or Empathy?

Our reading of the Book of Leviticus brings us into the religious and spiritual world of our biblical ancestors. Some portions of Leviticus, such as the elaborate descriptions of the animal sacrifices offered by the kohanim, the priests, fascinate us. Others, such as the demand to pursue holiness, inspire us. Still others, such as the concern for ritual purity and impurity, perplex us. A sincere reading of Leviticus challenges us to expand our spiritual imagination as we strive to comprehend and learn from its spiritual teachings. What are we to make of our ancient heritage?

The Torah portion for this week, Tazria, and next week's portion, Metzora, are among the most perplexing in Leviticus. These portions deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity as they pertain to individuals afflicted with a poorly understood skin malady that the Torah calls "tzara'at." While in the past the word tzara'at was translated often as "leprosy", today scholars and scientists generally agree that tzara'at is not what we recognize as true leprosy, or Hansen's disease, but are not in complete agreement as to the exact identity of the disease. Whatever medical condition tzara'at refers to, our Torah portions are not interested in its medical significance, but in its ritual significance. The Torah portions instruct the kohanim how to recognize the disorder on people's skin, when to declare the individual ritually impure and how to restore him or her to ritual purity after the disorder goes away.

The impurity brought on by tzara'at had serious consequences. The sufferer was required to remove himself from the sanctuary, dwell on the outskirts of the community and announce to all that he was in a state of impurity (Leviticus 13:45-46). It appears that concern with the impurity brought on by tzara'at was not restricted to our Israelite ancestors. It was part of the cultural and spiritual world they shared with their neighbors. The haftara (the reading from Prophets that accompanies the weekly Torah Portion) for Tzaria, discusses the visit of the Syrian general Naaman to the Israelite prophet Elisha in search of a cure for the disease (2 Kings 5:1-19).

As contemporary readers of the Torah, we might readily be put off by this approach to an apparently serious disease, an approach that removes the sufferer from what we see as the spiritually healing powers of community and faith. We know too well the devastation caused by isolating people who were afflicted with disorders that society found frightening, such as mental illness, cancer and AIDS. Our natural response to those who are ill is not informed by the laws of ritual purity concerning tzara'at, but by our Torah-based traditional teachings on bikur holim, visiting and caring for the ill.

But before we judge these Torah portions too harshly, we need to understand them within their own context. They are not describing a general approach to illness. Their concern is with a very specific condition, tzara'at, within a very specific context, the maintenance of the ritual purity of the sanctuary and of the Israelite community. One of the goals of the Book of Leviticus is to describe a living, working system in which the purity of the Temple is maintained so that the Temple, those who work in it, and those who enter it can experience the fullness of God's presence. Thus, within Leviticus, the biblical book most interested in the sanctuary and worship, concerns for ritual purity often take precedence over other spiritual and ethical concerns.

Other biblical passages that deal with tzara'at, however, treat it as an affliction that, like other illnesses, requires treatment. Its victims are often isolated but are not forgotten (2 Kings 7:3-10). Since the disease was seen often as caused by divine displeasure, spiritual intervention was an effective treatment strategy, as we can see in Moses' prayer for his sister Miriam's recovery from tzara'at (Numbers 12:10f) and in Elisha the Prophet's cure of Naaman's tzara'at by immersion in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:9-16).

Leviticus' detailed instructions concerning sacrifice and its strong focus on ritual purity reflect the seriousness of creating and maintaining a sacred space, reflective of God's heavenly abode, in which our ancestors could encounter God in prayer and worship. Its understanding of tzara'at as a special condition reflects the common belief of the time. We need to go to other biblical passages for the roots of our concern for the ill, but as we read the Torah portions this week and next, we are impressed by the extraordinary means our ancestors took to ensure that our holy sanctuary remained a sacred space in which to encounter the Eternal God.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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