As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his hair shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, "Unclean! Unclean!" He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)
This week's Torah portion, Tazria, has challenged generations of commentators as well as legions of b'nei mitzvah students. The discussion about purification after childbirth and the ensuing detailed descriptions of tzaraat—defilements of the skin, clothing, and dwelling—present interesting opportunities for bringing the ancient into the contemporary. There is a motif of exclusion that runs throughout this portion: A key verse reads, "He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46).
What does a person's "dwelling outside the camp" when sickness strikes mean? Illness can, of course, provide us as individuals and communities with powerful moments of personal and spiritual growth. But illness can also create a barrier to communication and healing that has tragic consequences. We have all had experience dealing with friends and the families of people who were ill and, as a result, were placed "outside the camp."
Paula was a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life. Having just moved to a new home with her two young children and devoted husband, she was involved in the community and synagogue life until she was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of a year of treatment, her condition worsened. Finally, she chose to end the treatments and spend her last months in the home she loved, assisted by hospice care. Before her illness, she had been surrounded by a close group of friends. Afterward, as if a wall had been erected around her, she was alone. In some unstated but very real way, she had been placed outside the normal flow of life at the very moment when her needs were the greatest.
This scenario, I suggest, is not a random one. Despite our best attempts, many of us deal poorly with congregants who have become isolated from their friends and family because of their illnesses. How many times have we spoken about our obligation to be present at a bedside or the need to provide a healing touch in times of illness? How many times have we seen individuals who have dealt with serious illnesses still isolated from normal contact and communication even after healing has taken place? Another person's illness is a stigma that infects us and sometimes inhibits us from reaching out. The long-lasting effect of this stigma is echoed in a statement about Leviticus 13:46 found in JPS: Torah Commentary: Leviticus, commentary by Baruch A. Levine, Philadelphia: JPS, 1991, pp. 82-83. About the verse "He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him," the commentator states, "The upshot of this provision is that an individual suffering from an acute tzaraat may be permanently banished; in II Kings 15:5, a Judean king afflicted with acute tzaraat remained all his life in a place called beit hachoshit, 'house of quarantine.'"
Fear often contributes to a society's excluding sick people from normal human contact. Consider the way in which communities deal with people who have mental health issues. The stigma of mental illness is present in many families and communities, yet it remains one of the last taboos, so often placing people who struggle with this illness "outside the camp."
There are certainly discussions of mental illness in Jewish sacred texts. A soon-to-be published study guide for congregations on raising awareness about and reducing the stigma regarding mental health issues titled Caring for the Soul: R'fuat HaNefesh (New York: UAHC Press, April 2003) discusses many of these textual sources. Talmud, Chagigah 3b defines the term shoteh as one who suffers from mental illness and discusses whether a shoteh is fit to be a witness at a beit din.
Traditional texts have also evolved terms that relate to contemporary conditions. Marah sh'chorah refers to a dark or black bile, which we understand to mean melancholia or depression. Teifuf da-at speaks to the idea of a person literally being torn or removed from a sense of reality. An additional concern is that an individual who is dealing with mental health issues may be sakanat n'fashot, a threat to life, both his own or someone else's (see Moshe Spero, The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Jewish Ethics, Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Press, 1986).
There is another group of people who are also placed "outside the camp." Visit our homes for the aged and you will too often see people who have been "left" outside life. The issues of caregiving and of honoring and respecting one's parents have never been more pressing. And as a result of increasing life spans and mobility, the challenges of our providing caregiving, especially for our aging parents, are ever present.
A good number of us have had the experience of dealing with older adults who live in isolation in some "facility," seemingly waiting to die. The sadness of this reality is that too many of these people yearn for human contact—a touch, a visit, a voice. Yet they have been isolated, and this isolation fuels the downward spiral of their life.
This week's portion, Tazria, can be viewed as a pathway into examining the ways in which some people have become isolated from others in our society. What remains a paradox is that in a world with so much interaction taking place, so many people remain isolated, either physically or psychologically, from others.
By the Way
- The vast majority of sages and exegetes assume that the illness the Torah calls tzara-at was not a natural illness at all but a miraculous punishment for social wrongdoing, especially l'shon hara, "speaking ill of others." (Michael Rosenak, "The Tree of Life, The Tree of Knowledge: Conversations with the Torah," Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001)
- Regarding tzaraat as a plague, the expression of God's anger, it was natural to inquire what sin evokes this punishment. The biblical stories…suggest that it might be brought on by several different sins; and a variety of opinions is recorded by the Rabbis. A favorite device of midrashic preachers was to punm'tzora, "leper," and motzi ra, "slanderer." Thus they utilized the reading of these Torah sections as an occasion to preach against hostile talk and gossip—always an appropriate topic for a sermon. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 829)
How can a congregation begin to break down the sense of isolation and exclusion experienced by people who exist "outside the camp"?
Is it a congregation's responsibility to bring the isolated into the community? If the formerly isolated person is mentally disturbed, is there is a danger that he or she may act out in a way that will adversely affect the community? In that case, is it still possible to balance the needs of the community with those of the mentally disturbed person?
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656