Twelve years ago I wrote a musing for this parasha based on the haftarah for Metzora, Even Lepers Bring Good News. This musing is an expansion upon that musing.
Do you ever feel like a leper? I think many of us have experienced, at some point in their lives, an estrangement to family, friends, colleagues, synagogue, social group, community, perhaps even our own faith. We experience a kind of spiritual leprosy. Sometimes the estrangement emanates from our side, other times it seems to emanate from the others-we feel as if we are being treated like lepers. It’s not a pleasant feeling, whatever the source.
Now, to begin with, I do want to call your attention to the fact that, although leprosy, or more correctly, Hansen’s Disease is treatable, millions remained afflicted with the condition. Even in our time, there are still thousands of leper colonies – even though we know that the disease is treatable and that segregation is not warranted when treatment is readily available. The social stigma of having leprosy is probably no different than it was 4000 years ago, and we, as a society, should be ashamed of that fact.
The Torah, at least as interpreted by the rabbis, seems to be trying to tell us that people suffering from diseases like leprosy are merely reaping what they have sown through their own transgressions and wrongful behaviors. I found that idea repugnant when I first encountered it, and my repugnance is no less visceral today. Yet we do know that the mind-body connection is powerful, and that people can manifest physical symptoms from stress, guilt, and other emotions. I suppose the same is true for societies as well – they can have physical manifestations of emotional issues. How else might one explain the Shoah or other atrocities? I wonder if some of what we are seeing manifested in politics these days is a physical symptom of an underlying stress. Since we know that Hansen’s disease has a specific bacterial cause, we should no longer attribute its manifestation to a person’s inner mental state or spiritual impurity. Which leads us to once again see the words of Torah in Tazria and Metzora as metaphorical in nature.
The same year I wrote the original musing upon which this is based, I also wrote a musing for parashat Tazria entitled Preventing Spiritual Rot in which I wrote:
The methods described in Tazria for identifying and isolating those who might defile the population are problematic. Why did this specific skin condition render one impure while another might not? Why would a woman who has just contributed her whole body to the greatest miracle of all-only one step below G”d’s ability to create life-be considered unclean and asked to make a sacrifice for expiation? Why did G”d give us these particular mitzvot and rituals (if that is what you believe,) or why did our ancestors develop these particular attitudes towards what was clean and unclean, and rituals to deal with that (if that is what you believe?)
The obvious difficulties aside, it seems to me that our ancestors challenge us to find a way to do as they sought to do-to identify and isolate that which makes the community impure.
Since people don’t seem to manifest their spiritual impurity in Tzara’at anymore, how are we to go about this task? And how do we define what is clean and unclean? Do we fully accept the definitions of Torah? And how do we extend those definitions to include things and circumstances unknown at that time (or can we safely assume G”d knew in advance and still wishes these definitions to be used.)
The message is for us to be on guard for that which can make our communities (and our selves) impure. That does become a little harder in the absence of clear physical manifestations like leprosy. How do we identify the symptoms? Once we seem them, what do the symptom,s tell us. This is, I believe, an important question. In the Torah’s use of leprosy, is the physical manifestation of leprosy by a person a message to that person, or a message to the community (or both?) Is it intended to get the individual to recognize what they have done to become impure, or to warn others? Is it a way to get society to bring pressure upon those with symptoms to encourage them to do what needs to be done to become pure?
If leprosy was meant to spur the community to action, it wasn’t very successful. It spurred action all right, but the wrong kind of action. It spurred society to segregate the impure, assuming that it was ONLY the people with leprosy that were society’s problems. Yet it could be that the individual manifestations of leprosy were an indicator of the Israelite’s overall impurity. Perhaps we shunted them away because we couldn’t bear to look at ourselves? The lepers become our goats for Azazel.
If leprosy is a sign of spiritual impurity of a society, than our society should be leprous simply for its treatment of lepers!
I began this musing with asking if there were times when you felt like a leper – shunned, degraded, ignored. So, what do you do when you are a spiritual or emotional leper? Do you sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Do you develop an intense dislike of those who distance themselves from you as if you were the carrier of a horrible and contagious disease? Do you develop an intense dislike of yourself, instead? You begin to wonder “am I really a leper, that people avoid me, push me away, distance themselves?”
The Haftarah for Metzora is taken from First Kings, chapter 7. It starts with the story of four lepers who were living just outside their own community even though it was a time of war and siege. The text tells us that none of them really thought it was a good idea just sitting around waiting to die or be killed. They apparently believed going inside their home city was an option open to them (thus, they must have felt their fellow Israelites were ultimately good hearted and would not turn away even a leper under these circumstances.) But they decided against that, figuring the city was under siege and in pretty bad shape-they might wind up dying of starvation if they went into the city.
What an irony-here we have four lepers, outcasts in their own community, and by G”d’s commandments no less-yet somehow they feel better off than their fellow countrymen inside the city!
Their other option was to go to the enemy camp. They figured either they will kill them instantly, or let them live. Yet another irony-despite their own circumstances, they considered going to the enemy camp as deserting! Still, they decide this seems the best option. They preferred a quick death, if they were to die, than one of starvation in a besieged town.
So they steal their way into the enemy camp-to find it deserted. (The text kindly tells us that G”d had frightened away the enemy with sounds of an approaching army.) They help themselves to some spoils-but then they stop and say to themselves that here they are, taking advantage of their good fortune, yet an event of even greater import, one that was great news to their own community, had taken place. They must go report this to their native city.
They shout the good news to the gatekeeper-and then we hear no more about them, their “good deed” done. (In the continuing story, a disbelieving King sends out scouts, who eventually confirm that the enemy army has retreated.)
These lepers, forced out of their own community, still felt connected to it, felt drawn to share the news of G”d’s good fortune.
If they can act this way, so can we all, when we fail tainted with our own kinds of spiritual and emotional leprosy. It’s an important lesson to us all.
Remember that even when you feel like a leper, your community still matters-at least it should-to you. It’s far too easy to abandon the community that is treating you like a leper – it’s almost understandable. Yet here our tradition teaches us that obligation to the community remains at all times.
However, I’m left hanging. I want to know what happened to the lepers. Were they rewarded for their loyalty to the city, or, as is more likely, they were continued to be treated as outcasts, forced to live outside the city? I think the author/s of the Book of Kings missed a real opportunity here.
Here’s one possibility:
II Kings Chapter 7 Verse 16.5 – And G”d was so taken with the civil loyalty of the four lepers, that their health was restored to them, and they came back into the city and shared in its triumph.
II Kings Chapter 7 Verse 16.5 – And the King and the people of the city were so taken with the civil loyalty of the four lepers, that a share of the spoils was left for them in their place outside the city, so that they might be rewarded.
But no. No hint of reward or salvation for the lepers. Which, in a sense, makes what they did even more important a lesson. They displayed loyalty to their people, to G”d’s people Israel even though they were shunned and would continue to be shunned because of their affliction and impurity.
This could be a hard thing to do – to remain loyal and supportive of your community when you feel you;re being treated like a leper. There’s no guarantee or hint of a reward for remaining loyal to them. Yet our tradition teaches us that this is what you should do.
Part of me wants to believe this is a good thing, a good lesson. Part of me wants to throw up because the idea is as repulsive as the sort of justifications one hears about the continuance of the caste system among Hindus. Or stories of slaves’ loyalties to their masters. A sort of Stockholm syndrome.
If the rabbis are right (and you know that I believe more often than not they weren’t – though in recent weeks I’ve given them a few nods) then when we are suffering spiritual leprosy it is because of something we’ve done to get ourselves isolated from the community. Perhaps reflecting on that would lead to a healing. On the other hand, sometimes communities treat people like lepers even when they are undeserving of such disrespect. Some communities don’t like dissent, so they treat critics like lepers. (One wonders how many potential prophets were silenced by a priest’s suspect diagnosis of tzara’at? After all, as I mentioned in that musing for Tazria in 5760, the Torah is concerned with a very specific diagnosis. It was possible to have diseases of the skin that were NOT tzara’at and didn’t render one impure.)
We know that leprosy is treatable, yet there are still leper colonies. Seems society as a whole is struggling with these same issues, aren’t we? Maybe it is time for those being treated like lepers to speak up and challenge their communities for their treatment of them. After all, that is the greatest loyalty one could show one’s own community – pointing out its errors.
© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Tazria-Metzora 5770 – Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M’tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 – Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 – It’s Good To Be the King
Tazria 5768 – Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven…
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot