Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker
Both this week’s portion, Metzora, and last week’s, Tazria, raise questions about how we address illness, not only in terms of biological and medical management, but also its chief disruptive components: fear, blame and guilt. Rather than focusing on the yuck factor in these Leviticus texts, it’s more helpful for us in a time still affected by the pandemic to note the wisdom our ancestors share about not letting go of hope.
In “The Wounded Healer,” the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen asks: “Who can take away suffering without entering into it?” and answers in the broadest possible terms that we are the safety line, the key to surviving: “Community arises where the sharing of pain takes place.” Nouwen wisely notes that only the foolish dare to withdraw from others’ pain, crisis and sorrow and thereby risk forfeiting aid they may someday need. That is the most ancient foundation for all forms of communal cooperation and government, the reason why we work so hard to restrain our inclination to self-centeredness.
In the Torah, the Kohen is our sacred functionary, addressing outbreaks of every kind of disease — medical, societal or psychological. He is “Kohen L’El Elyon,” priest to God on high, ritual guide, teacher and judge. For the common good, the Kohen reconnects people to both God and their fellow Israelites. It’s also clear that every Jew, every person, to some degree, must perform these tasks, having been told by God at Mt. Sinai that we are a nation of kohanim.
The portion describes how the Kohen accompanies the metzora, in a ritual declaring them free of their affliction and accompanying quarantine, fully restoring them to life within the community. [Leviticus 14:4 ff] The cleansing, involving two birds, cedar wood, crimson “stuff,” and hyssop grass, richly symbolizes one form of teshuvah — of repairing broken social and spiritual links. It tells the Israelites: “This life matters. In our world, every soul is unique and precious.”
The sages of the Talmud understood the biblical injunction “not to stand idly by the blood of your brother” as mandating medical care. Maimonides sees the same obligation expressed in the verses, “Let your (neighbor) live with you” and in “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Faced with difficult times and medical calamities, we stand on the wisdom of the Kohanim in Tazria and Metzora: that those who suffer illness will know that they will not be alone facing the unknown.
Rabbi Lawrence M. Pinsker is currently serving Adat Chaim Synagogue in Owings Mills.