Modern Untouchables: Our Sins Of Exclusion
Parashat Metzora calls attention to how we treat those who are excluded and alienated from our society.
No one with tzaraat is viewed as a permanent outcast. Their return to the community is envisioned after healing and a re-introduction ritual presided over by the priest. Finally, it is viewed as a truly regrettable and desperate situation to be avoided if at all possible. To prevent needless isolation, a thorough skin examination is required by an expert, and the rabbis illustrate the variety of instances in which the appearance of tzaraat is called into doubt.
It is troubling, then, to consider the extent to which we render those in our society who are most vulnerable as surrogate "metzora'im," outcasts in the manner described by the Torah portion. Regrettably, yet predictably, the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill, all those who are deemed to be social pariahs, generally by no fault of their own, come to occupy a position of perpetual exclusion from the blessings of our society.
As these metzora'im are outcasts, so are all those who live in perpetual exclusion from adequate education, health care, a sense of safety and daily well being. As the metzora'im are "untouchable," so are those exiled by poverty ignored and disdained.
Treatment of the Poor
Furthermore, in light of this week's Torah portion, our society's treatment of the poor is particularly egregious. Leviticus at least views tzaraat as temporary, assuming that the afflicted individual will rejoin the community. The scourge of our society is that we expect only exceptional individuals in extraordinary circumstances to benefit from such social transformation. Contrary to every humane impulse of Jewish tradition, we have rendered poverty a pathology for which there is no cure, an exile for which there is no return.
Such treatment, by the standards of the Torah, is not only unjust, but blasphemous. Consider the famous line from chapter 58 of Isaiah, verses 6-7, that what God desires is for all to share their bread with the hungry, to welcome the homeless into their own home.
The great teaching of Isaiah is to view the poor not as alien, but as integral to our community, also created in the Divine image. It is a realization that begs immediate response, acting in such a way as to transform hearts of stone into compassionate hearts of flesh, fashioning a society in which no exclusion is permanent.
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