Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tazria

The Book of Leviticus is a struggle. I am often at odds with its words. It speaks of priests and sacrifices, tabernacles and holy precincts, impurities and defilements. The literal meaning of its words often eludes me. This week we read of leprosy.

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2) In ancient times the priest was both the religious and medical authority. In this instance he determined whether or not a person was infected with leprosy. If a positive diagnosis was made then the person was placed in isolation for seven days. If the priest still determined that he had chronic leprosy then he was labeled impure. “He shall be impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)

Our approach to sickness and disease is in many ways different, but in other significant ways still the same. Today the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, is incumbent upon all. Yet we still rely on today’s priests, whether they be doctors or rabbis. We have allowed our mitzvah, our duty, to become professionalized. The Talmud offers helpful advice, stating that visiting the sick is considered a religious duty without limit. A person is rewarded both in this world and in the world to come for visiting the sick. (Shabbat 127a)

The difficulty of this mitzvah causes us to shy away from it. “It is better left to professionals.” is a refrain that continues from the portion’s words to our very day. The rabbis struggled to upend our reliance on sacrifices and priests. They argued, who better to lift someone’s spirits and offer words of comfort and encouragement than a friend. This is why, despite its difficulty, they ruled that bikkur cholim is an obligation that all must carry.

We also falsely believe that sickness is a private affair. We live in a highly personalized world where the individual and his or her rights and feelings are most prized. Judaism stands in opposition to this contemporary ethic. Judaism instead chooses the community. Caring for the sick is therefore shouldered by the community. You must never go it alone. To allow someone to be alone at this time of need would be a community’s great failure.

One of my favorite Hasidic stories is the following. Once the Gerer Rebbe decided to question one of his disciples. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” he asked. The disciple didn’t know. “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof, you study the same texts, you serve the same God, you sing the same songs—and yet you dare tell me that you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting?”

There will come a day when each of us will face illness or the sickness of a spouse or the disease of a family member. No ritual, no pill, can offer complete protection. Our souls might be capable of achieving perfection. Our bodies can never be made perfect. And so knowing this we must promise each other these vows. We must never allow people to feel that they should stand outside the community, to feel that at their time of greatest need they are most isolated. We furthermore pledge to never allow a friend to keep their illness a private affair and shoulder it alone.

We are always stronger together. No one should ever be alone. Never alone! Always together!

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