Based on detail from "Miriam Shut Out From The Camp" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, which shows a scene from this week's Torah portion.
Based on detail from "Miriam Shut Out From The Camp" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, which shows a scene from this week's Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion offers insights on suicide 

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Tazria-Metzora

Leviticus 12:1–15:33


In the private office of the Rabbi of Chelm … 

Student: Rabbi, I have a terrible problem.

Rabbi: How can I help?

Someone told me that they are thinking of killing themselves, and made me promise not to tell anyone.

You must tell someone.

They made me swear. Like an oath.

Break it.

But if I do, they will hate me forever.

Good. Let them hate you for a lifetime; then they will have a lifetime. You need to tell someone because whatever they are feeling now, this feeling can be overcome. But if they end their life, there is no return.

Have you ever lost someone to suicide?

Yes, and I am still upset with them.

How can you be upset?

Because I would have told them not to do it and that no matter what, you will not always feel this bad. Now, write down the name of the person and let’s do something right now. We need to be sure this person is not alone. Call the family. Then we’ll call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK).

What if they lie and deny? I’ll look like an idiot.

We’ll look like idiots, but we will not be idiots.

I feel like I betrayed them.

You did not. You betrayed an illness, not the person. I am glad you came to me, but now is the time to intervene and get help from a trained professional as quickly as possible. 

In the Torah study of the Rabbi of Chelm …

Much later, the rabbi, with details of this story inside his heart, related the broad strokes of this event to this very Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora.

Rabbi: We read that one day an Israelite had something on their skin that looked terrible, maybe even contagious, scary. Please ignore the translation “leprosy,” as this disorder did not exist before the Greco-Roman period; however, whatever it is, it is frightening. To prevent panic, and avoid a terrible mistake (spreading a false report and the community rushing to judgment), the calming procedure is found in this Torah portion.

This afflicted person is to “be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall see the affection on the skin of his body: If hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a skin blanch (Robert Alter translation); when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean.

But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days.”

You see, the community sought help from a trained professional, the Aaronites, as quickly as possible. Then the people we told to wait and the Aaronites observed, reflected and acted.

“On the seventh day the priest shall see him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days.

On the seventh day the priest shall see him again: If the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a skin blanch.”

In Torah study, the rabbi shared that seeming arcane ritual is vitally important in preventing teen suicide. One can imagine the Kohen saying, “Look, you have a problem. It’s not fatal. Let’s look deeper. You deserve attention. I am here for you. Let’s look past the external problem and into the internal problem. It may take time, but as long as you are alive, time is the great gift. Let’s spend it together.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].