What leprosy and other afflictions say about our lives


Leviticus 12:1-15:33

II Kings 7:3-20

Tazria-Metzora, a double Torah portion that deals with leprosy and the social stigma associated with it, provides a bar or bat mitzvah student with the challenge to write a message to which he or she can relate.

The portion catalogs all the gory details of that frightening, once-incurable disease — the scars, sores, scabs, scales, blisters, oozing wounds, puss and deformities.

Also included are the care and the quarantine of anyone who suffers from this malady that was considered divine punishment for sin (Leviticus 14:19):

"As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, "Impure! Impure!" He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:45-46).

And if such treatment and segregation were not torment enough, the portion also inventories the fungi and molds that grow on the walls of a house, making it an unfit place to live, quarantined until it could be restored to a habitable state of purity (Leviticus 14:33 ff.).

Just as a bar or bat mitzvah cannot relate to such a directory of afflictions, how is the modern rabbi to speak to this portion, knowing that a function of the ancient priest was the inspection of disease? "The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body…(and if) it is a leprous affection, when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean" (Leviticus 13:3).

Frequently, this exhaustive inventory of afflictions and treatments is dealt with metaphorically by speaking not of physical, but rather, of spiritual affliction: lashon hara — evil or careless repeating of truthful information that is derogatory or damaging to others; rehilut — malicious repeating of gossip that, even if not derogatory, can cause ill will or animosity; motzi shem ra — public humiliation or character assassination, the slanderous spreading of false, malicious, derogatory information; and sinat hinam — gratuitous hatred, haughty words that deprecate the speaker and his community.

These loathsome, contagious diseases transformed leprosy metaphorically into something to be spoken of with greater comfort than the overbearing descriptions of ooze and puss.

Nevertheless, among the several cases in which biblical characters suffered from leprosy are a few that need not be explained away metaphorically or disregarded. They help a student of Torah find meaning in a simple reading of a text that seems out of step with modern times.

For example, the Haftarah portions that traditionally accompany Tazria-Metzora concern four lepers outside besieged Samaria (II Kings 7:3-20), and the account of Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, who was cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4:42-5:19).

The story of Naaman provides a lesson of how an archaic text can still be instructive to a contemporary Jew:

"Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was important to his lord and high in his favor, for through him the Lord had granted victory to Aram. But the man, though a great warrior, was a leper" (II Kings 5:1).

A slave girl took pity on Naaman and urged him to consult the prophet Elisha. But Naaman was angered by the prophet's simple prescription: Bathe in the waters of the Jordan for seven days. He came for serious help and the prophet recommended bathing in water.

Again the servant girl intervened: "If the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, 'Bathe and be clean'" (II Kings 5: 13).

Desperate for a cure, he relented, followed her advice and was healed. In so doing, he recognized the omnipotence of the God of Israel and made plans to worship God exclusively: "Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!" (II Kings 5:15).

While Tazria-Metzora and the accompanying Haftarot are enigmatic, they do present a simple truth that redeems these passages from irrelevancy.

The account of Naaman is more than an ancient record of a leper who was cured. This narrative reminds the reader that the most complex remedies are the ones most easily accepted, even though simple solutions may often be the best.

People balk at simple cures and easy solutions because they want the same kind of sophisticated quick fixes that rule their fast-paced lives.

Simply stated, Tazria-Metzora is an appeal to simplify complicated lives. Thus, a student of the Torah need not look for obscure and concealed meanings in difficult Torah portions like Tazria-Metzora. It is possible to find something in them that speaks to their lives and reveals that even the most arcane texts have a message worth seeking and heeding.