Lepers and Kohanim in Current Times: Contemplations on Parshat Metzora

Vered Lifschitz is a Bibliotherapist, Psychotherapist and Coordinator of Emotional Therapy at OTS’s Derech Avot High School in Efrat

The Evil Neighbor / Zelda

As the eve of Passover descended,
and the flames consumed the leaven
in every courtyard,
and the chimney’s broom swept,
her garment charred,
she bounded towards me,
her words racing like lightning,
tears cascading:
“You, standing there opposite,” she cried,
“care not for me,
my charred attire, and you utter no solace!
Behold, I am ailing, profoundly so, consumed by despair.”
A perplexing assertion,
uttered from the depths of a miserable soul,
who had only recently rented a room among us.
A foreign and bold and impudent claim it was.
Deep within me, my soul enfolded
her frenzied longing, kissing her yearning for
softness.

Whenever she opened her door, children hid themselves,
as did the neighbors, both women and men.
Her chilly laughter pursued
our sheltered existence,
penetrating the decorum of our days:

– Do not deceive yourselves with the guise of goodness,
    her wild laughter proclaimed.
– Do not deceive yourselves with the facade of  your prayer.
– Do not deceive yourselves with the semblance of your kindness,
– Do not deceive yourselves with the illusion of your joy.
– And do not deceive yourselves that your happiness is complete.

When it became known
that she had departed to distant parts,
and that the tempest had waned and she had vanished,
we breathed with greater ease, unlatched our windows.
Sound the drums,
blow the shofars,
play the flutes and lyres.
Now we may repose.
Prepare the beds,
for tonight we shall sleep.

I knew
that we had conversed of her living soul,
consumed day by day,
as of a plague.
For nought her imprecations were cast upon us;
her smoldering hands
attempting to embrace our desolate souls,
bereft of imagination.
In vain she had fluttered vainly, a flickering flame,
before me with her scarlet, tattered banners,
so that I might liberate myself from my own enchanted circle
to uncover the essence of her existence…

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Vered Lifschitz

The poem below is a segment from a longer poem, by Zelda, entitled “The Evil Neighbor.” Who is this evil neighbor? The evil neighbor is the one who disrupts our decent serenity; who interferes with the bourgeois flow of life, and, perhaps, even invades the comfortable space of our traditions and customs. The evil neighbor is the one who does not fit into the human fabric of our community. She is the woman whom the neighborhood children nickname ‘witch’.  She is most probably not beautiful; nor is she pleasant, intelligent or wealthy.

She spoils our landscape, thereby disturbing our peace. We will feel relieved, and sleep better when we know that she has left the neighborhood for another place, and it doesn’t matter where – as long as we don’t have to look at her and acknowledge her existence. When we look upon her, the protective walls of our life seem to collapse; our self-perception of being benevolent and compassionate individuals seems to dissipate.

The evil neighbor cries out with a “yearning for softness”; a cry that conceals a painful life story – one of constant struggle against rejection.

The portion of Metzora commences with the verses: “This shall be the ordinance for the leper upon the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought unto the kohen. And the kohen shall go forth outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the plague of leprosy has been healed from the leper…”

In the portion of Tazria, the kohen proclaims the condition of the individual afflicted with tzara’at and takes him outside the camp. Yet, this action alone is insufficient; the kohen’s responsibility extends to reintegrating the metzora, the leper, into the fabric of society, constituting a sacred duty to both the afflicted and the community.

The social task with which the kohen is charged – purifying and absolving the one afflicted with tzara’at – is also a religious and spiritual one. In fact, it conveys the following religious assertion:  under certain circumstances that are potentially harmful to society, individuals should be temporarily removed from its fold, as part of a process of spiritual renewal and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, it remains our responsibility to facilitate these individuals’ return to the societal embrace when conditions allow, be it upon their healing, or when society itself is ready and resilient, and is no longer threatened by the affliction.

Our pursuit of an orderly existence falters when individuals depart without the prospect of reintegration into the social tapestry of our lives.

Today, there are no worshipping kohanim, and there is no leprosy, for that matter (some even claim a cure has been discovered). Nonetheless, throughout the ages, those afflicted with leprosy were banished from society’s embrace, and cast out from the rhythms of communal life.  These outcasts received few visits, and only few had the courage to inquire after them and infuse their isolated existence with the breath of life. However, there were exceptional individuals, like Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi, who would sit and engage in Torah study with them, or Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who would make the journey to the leper hospital in Jerusalem to offer solace. In our times, leprosy has been replaced with other afflictions which lead to social isolation. 

While physical leprosy may no longer afflict us, the metaphorical leprosy has expanded its reach. It has transitioned from a mere physical ailment to a stigmatizing label attached to those whom society regards with disdain, casting them out into the shadows even in our time. When we encounter them, we instinctively cross to the opposite sidewalk. We confine them beyond the boundaries of our community, placing them outside the realm of societal norms.

To many of these individuals, fortune has not been kind, yet their mere presence “irritates” us, not out of malice on their part, nor because they have wronged us, but simply because fate has dealt them an unfavorable hand. They stand apart from us, failing to fit neatly into the mold of societal expectations we have crafted. They may bear physical disabilities, cognitive challenges, mental anguish, or any number of significant hardships. They exist as “others” in every conceivable sense.

And then there is another kind of “others” – those who think differently from us. And, as such, we label them; we demonize them; we engage in battle against them, often without deigning to lend an ear to the truths beating within their hearts.

Today, there are no worshipping kohanim.

Therefore, the responsibility to reintegrate the afflicted back into the fold of society rests upon our own shoulders. It falls upon each and every one of us. This is a religious obligation.

Our task is not to change these “others”, but to acknowledge their otherness and include them in the circle of life, as well as in our personal circle of life.

We must look upon our “evil neighbors,” those who stir unrest within us, who attempt to arouse our souls – not with disdain for their idiosyncrasies, but with an outstretched hand, inviting them inward. Rather than showing off our imagined garments of righteousness, we must remember that our society needs these “others” to be a part of us. 

Levinas sees in the face of the other, a plea directed at the one who gazes upon him, a demand for response, not in words, but in actions, in attitude. The other demands of me to acknowledge his otherness and thereby reach out to him. This is my ethical duty. I cannot simply observe from the sidelines.  The other demands engagement; he demands responsibility from me. The other demands action and hospitality; he requires his nakedness to be clothed; he insists that I inconvenience myself and deviate from my comfortable path of life in order to come closer to him.

We live in a time when there are no worshipping kohanim, and it seems that leprosy has also vanished from the world. But the principle still stands. There are “lepers,” and we are required to be the kohanim who purify them and bring them back into the camp.

This year, we will read Parshat Metzora on Shabbat Hagadol, and two days later we will burn our chametz after cleaning the house, scrubbing the kitchen, and polishing the windows to perfection. Perhaps our untainted windows might afford us a better view of those “others”, our modern-day lepers, such that we will reach out to them and invite them to enter our haven. 

“Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover. This year we are here, next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.”

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