Tazria: Responding to the Challenge of Serious Illness

“Tazria”, the portion for this Shabbat, is, in non leap years, read with its twin portion, “M’tzorah”. This year, we will read this portion as a stand alone. These two sections of Leviticus have caused bar and bat mitzvah youngsters countless hours of challenge. How to write a “d’var Torah” about the intricacies of illness, skin eruptions and childbirth? Actually, these two portions have much to say about issues related to Judaism’s view of health and wellness and healing. “Tazria” (Leviticus 12 and 13) starts with a discussion of a woman’s impurity after childbirth and moves to the treatment of a certain type of skin disease. This disease is often referred to as leprosy, yet, there seems to be in modern interpretations no absolute confirmation that this was the correct diagnosis. What is more important, however, is some of the reactions that appear in the text.
Like much of our societal recation to disease, there is a need to isolate the diseased person. The professional, in this portion, is the priest, who issues judgements on the nature of the disease and performs rituals that may lead to the patient’s return to the camp. There is the theme of isolation that runs throughout these two portions and relates directly to people who are seriously ill who often are literally isolated as well as feeling psycho-spiritually isolated. There is much to be learned from this theme.
For example, I would like you to consider how we, as a Jewish community, respond to this issue of illenss and isolation. In Leviticus 13:45, we are told that a person who has come down with the “tazria” calls out “impure” (the Hebrew “tameh”). On first reading that is harsh. The diseased person must single themselves out by shouting that they are impure. This leads to their isolation. Now. fast forward to now. Let us look at this pronouncement in a different way.
We know people who are dealing with serious illness. Every congregation knows this issue and the resonse to this reality goes a long way in determining the culture of that community. The mitzvah of “bikkur cholim”, visiting the sick, relates to this portion. This mitzvah, one of the most basic of our tradition, can be seen as an antedote to the isolation of illness. We are responsible to make sure that no one is left alone, that no one is permitted to be islolated. Yes, there are medical reasaons that may prevent someone visiting a person for a period of time. But, in general, this idea of visitation and involvement with a person who is ill remains one of our most basic of cornerstones of ethical action. The person calling out “impure” is really calling to let the community know that I need help, that I am dealing with a serious health issue and please do not abandon me or be afraid to see me. This still happens in our enlightened world. Many of us have dealt with people who see their social circle collapse as a result of people being afraid or concerned that visiting them, will, in some way, spread the disease.
Hundreds of congregations have created excellent Caring Community programs, one of whose major reasons for existence is to make sure that no one is left alone during their bout with illness. That shout “impure” is a call to be involved, to not leave the person who is suffering alone. Community and relationships, we know now, can enhance healing. Thus the mitzvah!
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

1 Comment

  1. Having watched families and friends, often even those with strong medical backgrounds, struggle with this expectation, I believe help is needed in being present with someone struggling with dementia, and even moreso with Alzheimer’s. Often the person trapped inside the disease is aware enough to be terrified. Communication skills may be gone while understanding of word, dee and gesture make disrespect and dehumanizing acutely devastating. We need help in becoming more helpful and caring helpers.

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