Every once in a while, at this time of the year, we get lucky. We come to that long section of Leviticus that contains all the details of bodily impurities and skin disease – and if we’re lucky, the two Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora, are combined into one, and we can dispatch it in one Shabbat.
This year is not one of those times. Female impurities last week, the men this week, and scaly skin all around. But that’s okay. We’ll just continue the conversation we started a week ago – in search of the underlying Jewish values that make us proud, instead of squeamish. We’ll focus on the words of Torah that guide us to principles of inclusion and kindness, rather than rules that lead to isolation and ignorance.
Tonight, as we did last week, we’ll look at one little detail in the text.
Last week, we saw how sin becomes a part of your body – and a part of your life – if you don’t stop it at the door. And we understood how many chances God gives us to do the right thing.
Tonight, we’re still talking about the person who suffers from tzora-at, a scaly skin condition. And we begin with a special ceremony that God commands to do, to purify the person who’s sick, so that he can leave the isolation to which he’s been banished, lest he contaminate the rest of the community.
God spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time he is to be purified: When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp to see if the leper has been healed of his scaly affection.”
Um…hold on a minute. Question here. I get that this person needs to be brought to the priest to be checked out. But why should the priest have to leave the camp to do that. After all, the priest is such an important guy: powerful, ritually pure. Does he really need to join all the lepers and other presumed sinners outside the community? Isn’t there some safe and effective alternative?
To the 18th-century kabbalistic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Meir ha-Levi of Pinsk, the answer is: Yes he does have to go. No, there’s no alternative. Why? Here’s the explanation he gave in his published homily on this text:
“God wants the leaders to give the people the benefit of the doubt. God wants the High Priests to realize that if they had needed to go out in the world and earn their living, it’s possible that they, too, would have sinned. Here, the Torah teaches us that the priest must go forth out of the camp, out of his comfort zone. He has to put himself, literally, in the place of person who’s presumed to have sinned. He must surround himself with ordinary working people, the am ha’aretz, who are just trying to get by, day by day, toiling to feed their family and put a roof over their heads — and sometimes cross a line or make a mistake. It is only then, Rabbi Eliezer writes, that the priest will see that the tsora’at of this person, whatever its cause, can and will be healed.“
It’s easy for us to pass judgment on other people while we’re safely ensconced in our comfortable surroundings – when we are safe, while they are not. Most of us gathered tonight don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether we’ll have a paying job tomorrow.
Most of us are blessed with supportive friends and family and a caring congregation – people who will be by our side when we can’t handle the curveballs of life alone. It’s easy to look at people sleeping on the streets, or pushing a grocery cart full of rags and bags, or lining up for a hot meal – and dismiss them as somehow lazy or wasteful.
But we have seen over the past couple of years just how close to desperate so many of our neighbors are. The people who, in the depths of the pandemic, had to swallow their pride and drive through a pop-up food bank or find their way to a free-food porch, just to get a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a roll of toilet paper. The people who were desperately trying to pick up work while they scrambled for an internet signal for their children, so they could be schooled from their home, while their elderly parents were isolated in a nursing home.
We’ve watched the unemployment numbers go up, as the money for rent disappears. The worst may be over. (God willing, it is.) But these have been the facts of life right here in our communities. We may not exactly be walking a mile in their shoes. But we’ve seen for ourselves just how close misfortune can come to people who thought they were safe – or even immune.
And if our pride blocks us from thinking we could be next, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, another great Chassidic master, teaches:
“Had the holy books not talked about the sin of pride, I would not have believed it possible for any human, composed of the dust of the earth and who will one day return to the dust of the earth, to be conceited.“
So yes, even the high priest – who is most cosseted and most lavishly cared for — has to leave the confines of his safe life and go out to where the people are. It’s only when he does that, that he can even understand what tsora-at is: an inadvertent slip-up, a choice between two bad options, a mistake that’s too easy to make when your life requires personal sacrifice every day.
It’s only then, that the priest can focus, not on one little imperfection or mis-step, but on the whole person, created – as he is – in God’s image, and as precious to God as anyone else. It’s only when he sees the truth of daily life for most people that he learns to say: I must do something to bring healing and comfort to someone who is in such distress that he is afflicted to his very soul.
And if it’s true for the priest – well, none of us needs wait for someone who is suffering to come to us. Through these years when plague has shaken so many lives, it’s our responsibility to reach out to them.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Lev. 14:1-3.
 Rewritten from Torah Gems: Volume II Shemot, Vaykra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. By Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing Co., 1992), p. 293.
 Ibid., p. 295.