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Don't Turn Away from Illness

This past weekend I ran into a former student who said, “I always remember my bar mitzvah Torah portion?” “Why?” I asked. And he responded, “It was about leprosy. I will never forget that!” Indeed, one thing that can be said for certain about this week’s portion is that it leaves a lasting, and memorable, impression on the students who chant its words.

We read about how the ancient Israelites approached this feared disease. When people developed a suspicious looking skin infection, they would go to the priest. If he suspected it was leprosy, he would instruct them to quarantine for seven days. (Sound familiar?) If it disappeared, or diminished after the week, they were allowed to return to the camp.

If, however, the infection grew, and the priest determined that they indeed had leprosy, they would take on some mourning customs, rending their clothes and bearing their heads. They were required to dwell outside the camp for as long as they had leprosy. On their way out the door, so to speak, they were required to shout, “Impure! Impure!” (Leviticus 13)

If it were not bad enough already to have contracted leprosy, shouting, “Impure! Impure!” seems cruel. The Talmud justifies this requirement. The rabbis suggest that these words served to warn others that they were (potentially) contagious. They continue. These words not only serve as a warning but are meant to elicit compassion and prayers.

Some time ago I officiated at a funeral. It was for a woman who lived well into her nineties, but sadly suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last ten years of her life. In attendance at her funeral were four women who cared for her during these years. After I finished speaking, one asked, “Can I say a few words?” I responded, “Of course.” She then pulled out her written remarks and said, “I prepared some words.”

“Even though Sarah could not speak, I knew she was a kind lady. The way she looked up at me told me she was kind. I could see it in her eyes.” I was taken by her words. I marveled at the women's compassion. I was inspired by their devotion.

It is the responsibility of the sick to recognize their illness and ask for help. It is the duty of the community to offer help. This is the Jewish contention. I saw it unveiled in the caregiver’s presence and words.

I wonder, however, that when we hear the words “Impure! Impure!” or today’s variation “Covid! Covid!” we are struck more by fear than compassion. Rather than reaching out with supportive hands, and heartfelt prayers, we turn away.

Let us instead take our cue from these blessed caregivers. Let us no longer look away in fear. Let us instead hear in the pain of another’s illness an opportunity for compassion and prayer.

Let no one be made to feel like a leper.