We come this week to the famous portions in Leviticus that discusses the outbreak in the camp of a skin eruption. Often translated at leprosy, this section has been the bane of many a bar and bat Mitzvah student. The passages speak to the role of the priest as combination religious leader-physician and the need to remove the sick person from the camp, as well as the rituals for returning to the community.
But again, the text speaks to our issues in ways no one could have predicted. We begin with Leviticus 12:4 and the instruction that the priest, upon examining the person who has been afflicted, shall “isolate the affected person for seven days”. The word translated to isolate, v’hisgir, has the root that also means to close (samech, gimal, resh). A contemporary rabbi also sees in this verb the idea of quarantine. (Rabbi Aviva Hochstein comment on Hadar) Sound familiar? In the case of an outbreak that threatens the community, you isolate the afflicted person until he/she returns to health. The isolation also for a specific period or until the affliction is healed and one is allowed back only after time and examinations and the performance of rituals. (see Plaut commentary p.839)
No doubt many colleagues will drash on this section this Shabbat. How interesting it is that this passage hits us in the middle of the pandemic. The instruction to isolate/quarantine to allow the person to heal and to alleviate the threat of spread to the community, for the greater good of the community is priority. A challenge in our day is, of course, the attempt to explain why this plague is happening. In ancient religions or religions steeped in fantasy and superstition, people sought an answer; the person had sinned, or the like. Now, we know, via science, that these afflictions emerge as part of the randomness of our lives. We can understand the “how” but it it is up to us to figure out the “why”. As another contemporary colleague has written on the conditions of health and sickness: “our human condition should remind us how fine a line there is between these states”. (Rabbi Lisa Grushcow in “The Mussar Torah Commentary”. p.169)
We are living now in time when the border between health and sickness is clearly defined and once that border is crossed, the fragility of life becomes more real. May this Torah portion, in this moment in time, remind us to celebrate life, to care for those who are ill and to strive for the deeds of kindness and compassion that can bring support and healing to those in need.
Rabbi Richard F Address