This week's reading combines two Torah portions, Tazria and M'tzora. Tazria begins with a discussion of defilement and purification following childbirth, and continues with a discussion of the skin disease, tzara-at, a subject continued in Parashat M'tzora. Tzara-at is customarily translated as "leprosy," but we will refer to it in the original Hebrew, so as to distinguish tzara-at from Hansen's Disease, popularly called "leprosy" today. Tzara-at denotes a variety of skin rashes and blemishes, but the Torah applies the term to clothing and houses as well, where it may have meant various molds or mildews that could discolor surfaces of fabric or stone.
Our selection comes from the first aliyah:
When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus 13:2)
Ancient Israelite society did not designate a professional class of medical doctors. However, both priests and prophets functioned as healers and medical diagnosticians. In the verse we are considering, Aaron and his sons are invested with the authority to evaluate skin ailments and to classify them either as tzara-at (in which case the patient was deemed ritually unclean) or, for lack of a better term, "not tzara-at" (in which case the patient was deemed clean). It would appear that diagnosing the sick and ministering to them was all in a day's work for the Israelite priest. The priest had no special medicines, potions, or incantations to treat the m'tzora (the person afflicted with tzara-at). His work consisted of diagnosing the patient, placing him in quarantine if found with tzara-at, and welcoming him or her back to the community once pronounced clean.
Prophets in the Hebrew Bible also attended to the holy work of healing. In the haftarah that accompanies Parashat Tazria (II Kings 4:42 - 5:19), the prophet Elisha treats a man inflicted with tzara-at. Naaman, a foreign military commander, seeks Elisha's help, hoping he will cure him with a divine miracle. Instead, the prophet prescribes bathing carefully and regularly in the Jordan River for a week.
Naaman finds the Prophet's prescription profoundly disappointing. He had expected more from a "man of God." He storms off and says, I thought he would come out and stand here and call out in the name of the Eternal. His God, and wave his hand at the spot and cure the disease! Naaman's servants urge him to heed Elisha's simple prescription, and he reluctantly complies. At the end of a week of bathing, his skin disease fades to nothing. The solution required nothing more than careful attention to personal hygiene. Like the priest in the Torah, the prophet in the haftarah offers no medicines, potions or incantations-in this case, just sound advice.
These examples of the prophet and the priest elucidate Jewish views of healing. Two lessons emerge. From the case of Naaman and the prophet, we see Judaism's overarching practicality and reverence for the natural sciences. Faith in God does not imply that we expect the unreasonable. The Talmud says: "One should not rely on miracles." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:4) Even more to our point, we read, "When a person has pain, s/he should visit a physician" (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 46b), thus distinguishing Judaism from religious traditions that would instruct the ailing faithful to avoid modern medicine and instead pray for divine intervention. Judaism sees no conflict between piety and practicality.
From the case of the m'tzora and the priest, we see how Judaism distinguishes "healing" from "a cure." Undoubtedly the priest brought a form of healing to the patient even if unable to supply a cure. His presence-a presence of compassion and continuing concern, provides a worthy example for us. The priest had no power to cure the m'tzora. He could only examine the skin, make his diagnosis, and protect the rest of the community against contagion if necessary. But the Torah's procedure for the treatment of tzara-at required him to make contact with the patient, whose physical suffering was certainly compounded by fear and loneliness.
We give thanks for the advances of medical science that have so dramatically improved our health and longevity. We give thanks for the physicians whose work brings healing to the sick daily, and to the scientists who labor to develop new treatments and discover new cures. We give thanks for a religious tradition that places preservation of our own health and hygiene among the highest of mitzvot.And, when we or our loved ones are sick, we give thanks for the simple presence of caring friends, family, and clergy, who bring a modest but meaningful form of healing to spirits broken by illness, anxiety and isolation.
1. Can you identify a time that you either visited loved ones in the hospital, or when you were sick and were visited by loved ones? Did they, or you, experience any kind of "healing?" If so, what words would they, or you, use to describe how that healing felt?
2. Recitation of public prayers for healing, long a feature of traditional Jewish worship, have caught on with dramatic success in hundreds of Reform congregations over the past several years. The most popular example is the song "Mi Shebeirach" by Debbie Friedman, which has become a mainstay in most Reform congregations and which will be "canonized" in the Movement's forthcoming prayer book, Mishkan T'filah. What do you think accounts for the trend? Why do so many service-goers feel drawn to the public offering of prayers for healing, often accompanied by offering the names of the ailing? Do you find these prayers beneficial or meaningful in any way?
3. "Rabbi Aha bar Hanina said: 'One who visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth of his illness.'" (N'darim 39b) How do you understand this statement? Do you find it "true," at least in a poetic or metaphorical sense? ("One-sixtieth" is a Talmudic idiom implying, "the smallest measurable portion.") How does this statement underscore the mitzvah of bikkur cholim,the Jewish obligation to visit the sick?
For Further Learning
A study published earlier this month in The American Heart Journal has again publicly raised the question of the relationship between prayer and healing, and much discussion has ensued. Among its findings, the study announced that prayers offered for hospitalized cardiac patients not only did not help their medical progress, but may have hampered it (possibly because of a kind of "performance anxiety," i.e., patients feeling under pressure to recover for the sake of the strangers offering prayers). What do you think defines an accurate and appropriate relationship between prayer and healing?
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