I volunteered to write the d’var Torah for Tazria-Metzora. That’s right. Volunteered. I am not one to shrink from a challenge. For 28 years, I coached b’nai mitzvah students on Tazria-Metzora. Yes, it is the toughest parsha in the Torah but it forced the students to dig deeper, to think deeply. It challenges us to get over the “ick” factor of leprosy and ask not simply why it is there, but what is the meaning to be found?
Let’s skip the stomach-turning symptoms and jump straight to Lev. 13:45-46, the rules for someone infected: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his hair shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
I know that many will see this as cruel, making the person a spectacle, subjecting the person to derision. Or is it? Perhaps the sick person wishes to care for others and prevent them from getting sick as well.
Covering the upper lip? Is that a mask? Calling out, “unclean!” Is that an ancient version of informing the county health department and letting your workplace know when you were last in the building? Dwell apart? You mean quarantine?
Sickness isn’t shameful, of course. But neither does sickness exempt those who are ill from personal responsibility. Even if we do not feel well, our responsibility to others remains.
Yes, we are sick. Yes, we are contagious. Yes, we must do everything we can to let others know and prevent the spread. We cannot sit around and laugh at the Cohanim, the priests. We cannot dismiss the study and effort of medical experts. The experts of today and the Cohanim of antiquity were doing their very best with the latest data they had.
And what do we do? Conspiracy theories, attention to snake oil salesmen, racist fear mongering, dismissal of empirical evidence and — worst of the worst of the worst — refusal to take the least, most modest bit of personal responsibility, a simple mask, as we make our way through our present-day scourge.
Those ancient Israelites who covered their lips and shouted, “Unclean!” were not pitiful. They were heroes. They stood up. They took the knowledge of their day seriously. They cared about stopping the spread as a personal obligation.
Would that more of us paid closer attention to the heroes of Tazria-Metzora. Their example might just help us diminish the virus for good. PJC
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.