Parashat M'tzora is about otherness. It describes skin conditions that required an ancient Israelite to live temporarily outside the camp. Reading this portion makes many of us uncomfortable. We are uncomfortable because of its topic, skin diseases and their remedies; we disagree with its basic premise that ritual acts of purification will cure what we see as medical conditions; and we may wonder why this section was included in the Torah or why modern Jews continue to read and study it. The traditional midrashic commentators were also troubled, but their solutions bother me, too. In an effort to give spiritual and moral meaning to this portion, they assume that the person who is afflicted must have caused the illness: "Why is the 'leper' to be purified through the tallest of trees and the lowliest of plants? He was stricken because he exalted himself like the cedar; but when he abases himself like the hyssop, he will be healed." (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, "Parah," Plaut, p. 844) I propose a different approach to interpreting this portion.
In this portion, the Torah specifies in detail the rites of purification for a person who is cured of skin disease, tzaraat. The priest dips his finger in the blood of the sacrificial animal and places it on the right ear, the thumb, and the big toe of the person being cleansed. (Lev. 14:14, Plaut, p. 842) Earlier in Leviticus, we read about how Aaron and his sons—the people who are leading the cleansing ritual in our portion—are consecrated as priests. The consecration of the priests involves the identical ritual. (Lev. 8:23-24)
Some might say that in our day we have neither priests nor tzaraat. I believe that we have both. On Mount Sinai, before the revelation of the Torah, our people receives what Martin Buber called the first commandment: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exod. 19:6, Plaut, p. 522) In the biblical image of the ideal world, the entire nation is consecrated to the tasks of the priesthood. What are the special tasks of the priesthood? It is not just the service in the Temple and the facilitating of the sacrificial service. The priests are the special representatives of God's Presence. Our portion describes the responsibility of the priest to those who are other: "When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp." (14:2-3, Plaut, p. 841) Those who are outside—the marginalized, the other—are physically met and escorted back into the community by the priest. The priest cannot rely on hearsay or wait for those who are outside to come in; the priest's task is to go out and meet them where they are.
The rite of integration that the priest uses is a familiar one; it is the same ritual that Moses employed to consecrate the priest. Initially, the ritual was used as a marker of the priest's differentness. Here, the same ritual is used by the priest to bring the person outside back into the camp and community. The identical ritual is used to highlight the paradox of the priest's responsibility-the priest becomes other, an outsider, to fulfill the task of bringing in those who are already outsiders.
The markers of tzaraat today are different from those in ancient times. However, no less than before do our communities have people who are required to dwell outside the camp. The Torah summons us, mamlechet kohanim, the "priestly nation," to the priestly task of going forth and bringing them in.
For further reading: The Way of Response: Selections from His Writings, Martin Buber, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1966).
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.