A few months ago my wife and I boarded an old ship leaving Lahaina harbor in Maui headed towards the island of Molokai. This island is famous in Hawaiian tradition for many of the now famous rituals and lore of Hawaiian culture that originated on Molokai. Yet, most tourists to Molokai know about it from the story of a Belgian Catholic priest, Father Damien, who came in the latter part of the 19th century to minister to the colony of lepers. He organized a hospital and became world famous for the compassion he displayed toward people afflicted with Hansen’s disease (more commonly known as Leprosy). He ultimately contracted the disease and finally died from it, having served heroically those people whom society had rejected out of fear from disfigurement and contagion.
I tell this story in light of the Torah portion this week, which is called Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and which describes the ailments that Israelites contracted on their bodies as well as on the walls of their homes and upon their clothing. The priests were instructed, somewhat like physicians, to diagnose these skin ailments, isolate the individual, treat them, and, finally, declare them tahor or pure when the disease was cured. The priests would then officiate by conducting a series of sacrifices alongside the recovered individual, including offering up to God burnt and guilt offerings. The ultimate objective was to return the person in good spiritual and physical health to the community.
Most contemporary scholars reject the notion that the biblical metzorah was leprosy or Hansen’s disease. Theories abound about the actual nature of the ailment, but the main idea was how to create a ritual process to cope with what must have been a serious and infectious medical issue, and one that posed a significant public health crisis inside the Israelite community.
In both cases there appears to be an automatic condemnation of the afflicted, including a moral element of cause-and-effect responsible for their illness. In rabbinical literature we read how the rabbis interpreted the word metzorah as an allusion to motzei shem ra or one who brings out a bad name. The rabbis view this kind of illness as applying to one who gossips and commits acts of slander. In other words, the moral deficiency of the person was the reason they contracted this disease. Did the Israelite priesthood and the community also believe there was a moral deficiency responsible for the person afflicted with this mysterious skin ailment?
We have seen many times over the last thirty years how quickly society jumps to the conclusion that viruses like AIDS and other illnesses are the patient’s “fault,” evoking deeply embedded fears and prejudices which cause us to forget how to treat the person as a patient. In fact, many in the medical field remind us that even today, with all the advance technology that currently exists, hospitals sometimes forget that the patient is a person first and foremost.
One biblical scholar, Baruch Levine, asks the following question: “Why did the priests require a guilt offering?” The original purpose of the guilt offering, according to Levine, “was to expiate an offense that caused a loss to the sanctuary or to another person due to a false oath.” “What loss,” he continues, “occurred as a result of the ailment tzarat to a person?” Instead of accepting the traditional interpretation that the person must have committed some kind of moral offense, Levine proposes that “the guilt offering served as a sacrifice of ritual purification,” and not something connected to a moral offense. This kind of burnt offering allowed the priest to sprinkle sacrificial blood on the extremities of the person, as compared to a sin offering or a burnt offering, where priests were prohibited from using such blood on the individual.
Many rabbis have experienced hospital visits to a congregant with an infectious illness and are required to put on protective hospital clothing before entering their room. Anyone who has done this understands firsthand the feeling of isolation that the patient experiences. It is a time not to make moral judgments but to bring pastoral care, knowing that the potential risk of infection is part and parcel of what is required to contribute to a spiritual purification process in today’s world.
It is up to us as a caring community of clergy and concerned loved ones and friends to do what we can to remind patients that their illness do not define them, but that a comforting visit or reciting a prayer for healing at their bedside is a reminder that they are tahor, or pure in soul, as they recover from their illness. In this way we too are the priests who can bring healing to the patient in need of our support.
About the author:
Rabbi Brad Bloom M.S.W. D.D., serves Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The above was formerly published as #213 in our Torah from Around the World series.