Parashat Metzora

Leper as Other

How to create a society that recognizes and meets the needs of ill and marginalized people.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Metzora, and previously, Parashat Tazria, describe the process of determining whether or not a person is a leper. In ancient times, leprosy was interpreted as a physical affliction caused by the moral transgression of gossip. We read in the Torah that Moses' sister, Miriam, suffered this terrible disease as a consequence of her malicious speech--the external affliction of leprosy was inextricably linked to her immoral action.

american jewish world serviceThe Torah teaches that during the early stages of what seemed to be a serious skin affliction, a sick person would stand before a Kohen (priest) who would diagnose the illness. If it was determined that the person was a leper, he or she would be expelled from the community for the duration of the recovery process.

The Priests' Response

Given this potential outcome, it seems reasonable to suspect that a person visiting a priest for diagnosis would be frightened. It also seems likely that the  priest would view such a person as a likely sinner, as one perhaps already guilty. Yet the tradition emphasizes that the priests, in an incredible display of care and compassion, demonstrated an ongoing commitment to each person's inherent humanity and dignity regardless of the leprosy determination.

From the moment that a negah (a plague or affliction) appeared on an Israelite's skin, the priests were involved. They would wash the affected area, shave the hair from the body, and observe the nature and progression of the affliction. The priests monitored the wound for up to two weeks. After this period, the afflicted person was either pronounced clean and permitted to resume normal life or declared a leper. In the latter case, the public health needs of the community were made paramount and the patient was placed outside the community until fully healed.

Until the moment of removal from communal life, the potential leper represented an important obligation for community leaders. Even though community health and ritual purity were their primary responsibilities, the priests spent time addressing each person individually, seeing each face, and understanding each person's pain.

This ethic underlies the priests' decision to wait two weeks before making the difficult ruling of expelling a member of the community. They realized that the sickness not only affected the skin and they took time to see past the surface affliction to engage with the person. This allowed them to see themselves reflected in the suffering eyes of the sick. Their attention to each individual and their work to treat even the smallest signs of illness are worthy of praise and emulation.

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Lydia Bloom Medwin

Lydia Bloom Medwin is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.