Parshat Tazria: Leprosy – Between Isolation and Community Life
by Rabbi Ronen Ben David, Headmaster of OTS’s Neveh Channah, in memory of Anna Ehrman
I remember the first time I studied the Book of Leviticus, and what I felt upon reaching the chapters about leprosy. The general atmosphere was one of disgust and repudiation. Though the teacher had explained to us that the leprosy discussed in the Torah is not the same as leprosy of the 20th century, the expression “a white spot streaked with red” evoked a strong sense of discomfort. I wouldn’t have wanted to meet a leper. I would prefer that the leper sit alone, and not in my vicinity.
In the book The Island of Sophia, British author Victoria Hislop describes life on the island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete. Lepers had lived on the island during the first half of the twentieth century. They were exiled there. Even the Nazis had avoided the island after capturing Crete. The lepers were forced to live in isolation, so that other islanders wouldn’t catch their disease, and so that they wouldn’t disturb them. The book describes the pitiful communal life in the leper colony, a life ripe with desperation, leaving the reader feeling deeply disturbed.
In the Torah, leprosy is mentioned without any description of its causes. It can appear as a spot in someone’s home, clothing, or skin. Resh Lakish explains the difference between the physical disease, which afflicts the skin, and improper social conduct: “What is meant by ‘This is the ritual for a leper’? This is in reference to the law for one who speaks Lashon Harah (gossip).” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arachin, 15b)
It is easy to understand that the punishment imposed through leprosy is that a person is forced to leave the camp and live a life of solitude. Someone who had harmed and slandered someone else doesn’t deserve to live in normative society. However, the Torah does not mandate a life-long punishment.
The lepers sent to Spinalonga knew that this was a one-way ticket. There was no way back, no way to rejoin their family and friends. They were condemned to a life of solitude that would last until their deaths. In the Torah, however, the treatment of lepers is administered by the kohen, the priest, who determines when a leper may return to the camp. This is why the verse states: “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest…”
There is a way back. A person living in isolation has a better understanding of the meaning of communal life, and a better appreciation of the community. This person wants to rejoin society, and the Torah makes this possible.
Post-modernist discourse urges people to think only of themselves, and fulfill their desires without inhibition. They need not subjugate themselves to any higher truth. This is the same type of discourse that made depression a global epidemic. This is also the reason for painful feelings of isolation, which even prompted the appointment of a “Minister of Loneliness” in Britain, a year ago. Any society that encourages its members to be overindulged in themselves, at the expense of others, can also engender loneliness and depression.
The treatment for leprosy teaches us that we need balances. People aren’t just individual organisms – they are social beings as well. When people betray the social aspect of their lives (by slandering others, for example), they are penalized through loneliness. There is, however, a way out of this solitude, both then and now. It is imperative that we teach the world the message of “I am” along with “I am and so are you”. It is about having an honest dialogue that will ultimately lead to tikkun olam, repairing the world, through the observance of the Torah.
A rabbinic Midrash (Vayikrah Rabba, 17:6) tells us of the Canaanites who were afraid of the Israelites, who had come to conquer their lands, and had hidden treasures within the walls of their homes. This alludes to the advantage of leprosy that affects a house: it forces us to destroy those houses, so that the generation entering the Land of Israel may find the gold the Canaanites had stashed away.
It turns out that leprosy is a terrible disease that enables both destruction and repair. It helps us find the treasures in our homes. The disease could evolve into a delight, and it depends solely on us. We are being entreated to discover these treasures.