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A More Holistic Approach to Curing Leprosy?

  • A More Holistic Approach to Curing Leprosy?

    M'tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33
D'var Torah By: 

Discussions of Parashat Metzora generally revolve around one of two topics: the horrendous disease of leprosy as the punishment for l'shon harah, harmful language, and the "otherness" of both the outcast lepers and even the kohanim in their roles as health inspectors-healers. The parashah itself addresses the most immediate issues pertaining to the treatment and containment of tzara-at, an eruptive skin disease: Somebody (or something) has it and now, with the priest's assistance, he, she (or it) must get rid of it in order to regain social admittance.

Many people today choose to gloss over this portion because they regard it as too primitive, too "Deuteronomistic." Are we supposed to interpret leprosy as a divinely ordained punishment? Must one have sinned in order to have contracted such a fatal disease? Do we not now realize and acknowledge (in large part because of the teachings of Rabbi Harold Kushner) that bad things very often happen to good people and vice versa? Accepting the punishment theory makes it difficult for us to explain all the ailments associated with the aging process or any chance occurrence that causes pain or death to young and old alike.

And then there are the elaborately described purification rituals, involving sacrificing animals, dashing blood all over, shaving off eyebrows, etc. Although all of this is presented with due seriousness, it surely strikes many of us as being a lot of hocus-pocus. Just as we question the efficacy of these practices, so, too, we wonder whether people thousands of years hence will get a chuckle out of our own so-called "state-of-the-art" medical procedures and treatments.

So now what? We are compelled to return to the Torah text in order to figure out what lesson can be derived from this segment of God's teaching. Even if we accept the punishment theory and even if we can relate to all the details of the purification rites, there still remains one issue that must be addressed, namely, whether all this truly "cures" the individual of the impulse to commit the sin of l'shon harah. Does the isolation treatment really rehabilitate the offender? If we have "advanced" in any way since Parashat Metzora was written, it would have to be in our increased awareness of the psychological underpinnings of many "unacceptable" behaviors. The knowledge and sensitivity we have derived must be applied to attempting to cure people, but this point is noticeably absent from the traditional discussion of leprosy in the biblical context.

Whether trying to eradicate leprosy or any other societal ill, we must endeavor to strike at the systemic root of the problem and not merely attack the periphery. For example, in light of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's recent call for Reform Jews to "revolutionize" our worship opportunities, let us keep in mind Rabbi Larry Hoffman's advice (as presented in his indispensable work The Art of Public Prayer) that rather than treating the symptoms of a problem, we must delve deeper in order to fix the system that produces those symptoms.

The purification process for leprosy (as punishment) does not guarantee that the disease will not recur. So, too, we must not be disappointed if merely cosmetic changes to worship experiences do not go far enough to achieve our movement's goal of truly affecting the overall role of worship for Reform Jews. Instead, let us make sure to ask the right questions from the outset so that our modern-day cures truly represent an advancement over the primitive ones of yesteryear.

Rabbi Andrew Bossov is the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota, FL.

Within These Walls
Davar Acher By: 
Lisa Langer

I knew it was coming. I had my suspicions. I saw it happen to other buildings in my community. Then the notice went up: Termites were living within my walls. My apartment building would soon be fumigated. My first reaction was something like, "Gross! I'm living with termites!" My next response was, "Where will my dog and I live for three days?" Then I read the instructions: "Remove all living things, including plants and pets. Remove all opened food. Store all unopened food in the bags provided. Be sure to seal the bags tightly so that no air gets inside."

What a time-consuming, annoying nuisance! But I had no choice: The building would be tented, closed off, and fumigated regardless of my wishes. I was at the will of my landlord. So I arranged to stay with friends. I packed up all the listed items to store in my car trunk and in the industrial-size freezers at work, and I filled my suitcase with everything I thought I'd need during my expulsion from my plagued home.

I speak from experience in saying that it is no easy task to accomplish what Parashat Metzora requires of those living in a house with tzara-at, an eruptive plague that manifests itself on the walls of a house. In Leviticus 14:33-53 we read about the process of identifying, vacating, cleansing, and reinhabiting a diseased home. Learning that your house is unclean and being ordered to have it cleared is upsetting in many ways. Today we can often identify the source of such uncleanliness as a climatic or geographic issue. We can then hire an exterminator to rid our homes of the evil. Parashat Metzora, however, assumes that it is precisely the unholy doings within the walls that produce the slimy plague on the walls: The tzara-at of a house is merely the reflection of what happens inside its walls. A house's return to cleanliness is accomplished through a detailed procedure performed by a priest and, as the commentators suggest, through the changed behavior of its inhabitants.

According to a talmudic statement in Tosefta Nega-im 6:1, the actual case of a house with tzara-at never really happened. These verses from Parashat Metzora are included in the Torah so that we can learn from their teaching. What can we learn? We can learn to think about the holiness of our homes, the ones in which we live, pray, and study. We can learn to evaluate our behavior in those places so that reflections of our holiness are apparent inside and outside their walls. We can learn that it is sometimes necessary to clear out our clutter in our search for holiness.

Rabbi Bossov suggests that we use the lessons of Parashat Metzora to examine how to create and express holiness within our congregations. His interpretation encourages us to think about how to make changes within our walls in real, true, and lasting ways. During this week of Parashat Metzora, let us resolve to clear our spaces, examine our plagues, and reflect on the holiness within our walls.

Lisa Langer is the program coordinator at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.

Reference Materials: 

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839-854; Revised Edition, pp. 750-764; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 657-678

When do we read M'tzora

2022, April 9
8 Nisan, 5782
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