By Clifford S. Fishman
Leviticus chapter 13 contains a 44-verse recitation of the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of a skin condition — tzara’at — that renders someone ritually impure. But the symptoms do not correspond to any known disease or medical condition. Doesn’t that make the whole chapter meaningless?
No. The consensus of rabbinic opinion is that the affliction results not from biological causes, but because of sin. We see this in verses 13:45-46, which not only require the afflicted person to remain outside the camp until the symptoms disappear; they also require that “the person with a leprous affection” must tear his clothes, leave his head uncovered and “shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’”
We can understand and endorse the need for quarantine. And the requirement that an afflicted person chant, “Impure! Impure” while in the vicinity of others might be a rational — if degrading and humiliating — attempt to prevent contagion. But forcing a person to bare the head and cover his or her upper lip “was a customary way of shaming a person” (Etz Hayyim, p. 657).
It seems, therefore, that this condition (if it ever existed) involved not just a physical health problem, but moral wrongdoing as well.
This concept comes with a cost. It suggests that when a person is ill, it must — or at least it may — be his or her fault. And if it is the victim’s fault, isn’t it morally permissible, even preferable, to avoid or shun that person?
This thinking plays into our natural fears. We know in our hearts that disease or injury or impoverishment can strike anyone at any time. We don’t want to acknowledge that. It is much more comforting to believe — or to pretend to believe — that living ethically and humanely, and making intelligent financial and lifestyle choices, will guarantee a long, happy, comfortable life. The tendency to shun those who are ill or injured or impoverished flows from the fact that we don’t like being reminded of how vulnerable we all are to random events and unpredictable circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic is stark proof of that vulnerability.
Those of us who are lucky enough to be healthy and financially comfortable therefore have a special obligation not to shun or blame those who get sick, but to come to the aid of those without those advantages. We must do what we can: Donate generously to organizations that support those who are ill and whose jobs have disappeared or whose businesses have gone under. Volunteer for activities that help others and do not put ourselves at undue risk. And to do whatever else we can to ease the physical and emotional burdens on those who treat the sick and keep society functioning.
Clifford S. Fishman is a longtime member of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville and a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University.