Jews don't over drink. Jews don't beat their spouses. Jews don't get HIV.
The absurdity of it all. One lie after the other. We Jews fell in love with these lies. We ate them up and for many years our full bellies lulled us into a sleepy state of denial. Now we recognize that alcoholism, spousal abuse and AIDS (to name a few) are Jewish realities. We live with their presence in our lives. Whether it is a relative, co-worker or close friend who endures these trials, we have slowly begun to move from silent suffering to communal care.
I believe this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora (a double portion that addresses the laws around the disease called tzara'at and the diseased person called a metzora) was ahead of its time. It is progressive because the metzora and the community were expected to act publicly.
To this day it is unclear who was a metzora. The most common translation is "leper." But as Luzzatto points out, the metzora was isolated to prevent the spread of ritual contamination and not to protect public health. A bridegroom suspected of having tzara'at was permitted to postpone his examination until his marriage week was over, and a gentile metzora did not cause ritual defilement (Negaim 3:1-2). Judging by these statements, the metzora must not have had the contagious disease of leprosy.
Given this confusion, what is interesting is the responsibility of the metzora. According to Leviticus 13:45-46, after the metzora is examined by the priest and pronounced tamei (ritually impure) he must "have his clothes ripped, have his hair left bare [which are acts of a person in mourning], cover his upper lip, and ... call out, 'Tamei! Tamei! (I am ritually impure!)'" The Torah then goes on to say that he shall be tamei as long as he has the tzara'at, and he shall remain living apart from the community until that time is over.
This is radical. Why? Because sickness is made public. No longer is the metzora told to suffer silently in a hospital bed. No longer is the word "cancer" whispered under one's breath. Rather we are commanded to shout out, for everyone to hear, "Tamei! Tamei!"
Though a surface reading of this text may appear to teach that the metzora is degraded by performing acts of a person in mourning and then sending him or her outside the community, another reading may teach a different set of values. The command for the metzora to publicly change his or her appearance is significant. The Torah is teaching us that some illnesses can be and are life-changing events, and that we as a community are obligated to know who among us are suffering. In addition, some illnesses, whether we recover from them or live with them chronically, are a type of death.
Secondly, it is important to note that the Torah reads "have his clothes ripped, have his hair left bare," implying that he does not rip his own clothes or shave his own head, but that others must assist him in the act. Again, this is another hint that the metzora is not suffering alone but, from the moment of diagnosis, is reaching out for others to help him accept his changed identity. The recent trend of healing services in synagogues across the country and the popularity of Debbie Friedman's "Mi Shebeirach" blessing attests to this powerful mitzvah.
Now we can understand the final radical action the Torah commands the metzora to do: to leave, to go outside the camp until the tzara'at has gone. Why, after all the public attention, is the person told to leave? Because part of communal care is allowing sick people time to transform, allowing them time to process their illnesses with God. Leaving allows them to be alone rather than lonely, to carve out time and resist returning to the world unchanged, to discourage them from pretending that their months of chemotherapy treatment are over and done with or their addictions have ended. Instead, we are to recognize that wandering in the wilderness with God is sometimes a blessing of opportunity.
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