Yes, this is the dreaded double portion Tazria-Metzora, in which we are told the details of how to deal with cases of impurity in our communities – including women’s impurity, diseases of the skin, and even uncleanliness of household items and the house itself.
Commentators will point out that, even though the Torah looks with sympathy on one who develops an infection like this, the Sages saw this as a chance to make a moral point. The rabbis believed that when someone showed a disease like this on the outside, it was a reflection of a sickness on the inside. In other words, they believed, you were sick because you had sinned.
But the Torah doesn’t say that. Nowhere is the afflicted person accused of any kind of transgression. The rabbis might, for their own reasons, have interpreted these chapters as a way of rooting out moral rot in the community. But that’s not what’s really happening here.
So let’s see what’s is.
Leviticus chapter 13, verse 3, is our key here:
ג וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר־הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ ׀ לָבָן וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ נֶגַע צָרַעַת הוּא וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ:
The standard English translation of the beginning of the verse says, “The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body.” And at the end it reads, “when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”
But we are taught that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. So: Why the redundancy? The beginning of the verse already says the priest is looking at the affection – why does that need to be repeated at the end? The answer: it must refer to something else.
Meshekh Hokhmah, the Torah commentary written a century ago by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, suggests that, indeed, the end of the verse means something quite different:
וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ:
When the priest looks at HIM and pronounces him impure.
Him. Not it. First, the priest looks at the infection. Then the priest steps back and takes a look at the entire person. He looks at what is whole and healthy about the person who is suffering – not just at the affliction.
In other words, a person is not his or her illness. A patient is a human being who needs to be tended to, body and spirit. That’s why Aaron is chosen for the job. Nobody else will do.
Other than Moses, Aaron is the most respected person in the community. As the high priest, he’s the one who oversees the spiritual health of the Israelites – and here, their physical health too. Like the rabbis, the Torah does make the connection between body and spirit – but not in a negative way. Aaron is there as a healing presence.
It’s like being treated today by the top infectious disease specialist in the country. How would you feel if you were in the hands of the best of the best? Relieved? Hopeful? This suggests the Torah’s message is one of inclusion and not exclusion. It’s a message of holistic healing of body and spirit.
The priest comes, not just once to put the afflicted person into isolation, but once a week for however long it takes to see the person through to healing. Every week, the priest comes hoping to see the infection gone, so that the patient can once again take his place in his community – and do it as soon as possible.
What the Torah is giving us is not a plan for isolating people, but a path to healing and reunion. Because every single person counts. Every single person contributes. Every single soul is unique and precious and necessary to the life of their community. Every human life is to be celebrated and blessed.
As Jews, we appreciate the Torah’s understanding of body and spirit. Judaism and healing, intertwined. And I think it’s one of the reasons why medicine is such an honored profession in our community.
Yes, the stereotype of finding a “nice Jewish doctor” to marry is cringe-inducing. But the fact is that you are more likely to find a doctor inside the Jewish community. My colleague from Philadelphia, Rabbi Lance Sussman, discovered that, although Jews make up only two percent of the American population, over 14 percent of American doctors are Jewish. And that’s not to mention 26 percent of Nobel prize winners in medicine. Closer to home, we are honored to have esteemed physicians in our own congregation and our broader Altoona community. They enhance our Jewish community and our entire community.
Think of the names of some of the hospitals in New York we’ve been reading and hearing about, where the staffs are at the white-heat center of the Covid-19 pandemic . Montefiore Medical Center, the primary teaching hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, was named for the 19th century British Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore, who took a special interest in modern healthcare.
Mount Sinai, now on the Upper West Side of New York, was the original “Jews’ hospital” in Manhattan, founded in 1852. Four decades later, Beth Israel Hospital was incorporated on the Lower East Side. Both were established to serve New York’s growing Jewish population, who were refused care at other hospitals in the city. Both now care for huge and diverse populations.
We know about the tremendous contributions Jews have made to medicine – here in the U.S., in Europe and in Israel. But the powerful connection Jews have to, and our respect for, healing professions goes back millennia.
The great 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides was a halakhist, a theologian – and one of the most famous physicians of his time, serving as court physician to Saladin, the great sultan of Egypt and Syria.
Centuries before Maimonides, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) had counseled that scholars should not reside in a city without a physician.
And back in the second century before the common era, the wise man known as Ben Sirach (38:1-15, edited) exalted the Divine call to healing:
“Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for God created him. . . The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired . . . [God] gave skill to men that He might be glorified in His marvelous works. By them He heals and takes away pain.”
But all of this starts in the Torah. The gift of healing bestowed upon special people in our community. Their ability to treat body and spirit together. Their goal to return the whole person to the community.
If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is the message from this one verse from the Torah: People are not their illness.
They all are mothers and fathers, sister and brothers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, widows and widowers. They are police officers and nurses and health-care aides. They are lawyers and custodians and, yes, rabbis. Each one of them has a life from which they have been torn, and to which, we pray, they will return. Each of them has a team of healers who, we pray, will be successful in their work: the saving of one life. And the cure for us all.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. AS we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin