Parshat Metzora: The Healing Process (Leviticus 14:1-15:31)

Parshat Metzora: The Healing Process

(Leviticus 14:1-15:31)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

About three years ago, just as I was about to serve as Guest Staff Rabbi on a long cruise to Brazil, it was announced on ILTV (Israel- English news) that Israeli scientists have created a technology that eliminates the need for insect repellent. That was the last I heard of it, though. However, I would have defied any disease-bearing mosquito to have come close to anyone who emerged from our bus tours, dripping with sunblock and extra-strength Deet. It would have been a fatal journey for the mosquito!

Meanwhile on board the ship, just as on this one, every precaution was taken. Passengers were reminded daily to wash their hands frequently; disinfectant soap machines were stationed outside all public areas; and attendants with piles of hot towels awaited us outside the ship at every port before we could even touch the ship’s gangway railing on re-boarding. In addition, we passengers had individual responsibility to be preventively vaccinated for all kinds of diseases occurring in that part of the world. Most of us took anti-malaria pills. In addition, the ship provided a infirmary staffed by two nurses and a doctor. We were protected plus.

In our Torah portion for this week, Parshat Metzora (which discusses infectious diseases in detail) we can similarly marvel at the wisdom of the careful precautions taken by our ancient Jewish religious tradition not only to isolate – that is, quarantine outside the community – a person afflicted by a disease deemed infectious, but also the concern shown by the priests, the biblical healers, in attempting to identify when the contagious period had passed, and when the infected person had healed sufficiently to return to the community without risk to its members. And without social rejection. Always there is the effort to bring the person back to the community.

This passage clearly identifies the dual concern in our tradition, both for the community and for the individual. The sick person is not an outcast. A daily effort is made by the healers – the priests, dangerously exposing themselves to infection – to go outside the community each day to examine the sick person or persons, and with the medical knowledge of the time to know when they are healed. Simply stated, the priest builds a bridge between the need of the community and the dignity of the person concerned. Only then can the community be whole.

Parshat Metzora also addresses inanimate objects – infected buildings – as well as people. Mold and fungus and greenish-black areas must be removed, and, if the buildings cannot be restored to health, they must be destroyed.

Understandably, most kids approaching bar- or bat-mitzvah dread getting this portion. Their initial reaction is usually “Ugh – Why me?” Most years Metzora is combined with Parshat Tazria, so that the two portions combined go into even more detail about these issues. When my granddaughter ascended to the Torah for her Bat-Mitzvah two years ago, and Metzora was the portion she got! It was my joy and honor to have studied it with her, and to be the rabbi conducting her Bat-Mitzvah. We decided to concentrate not on the disease but on the courage and medical knowledge of the healers, and, yes, she read and commented on this portion with great respect for the healers of our tradition in their ancient, priestly wisdom. In fact, this portion is an essential element in understanding the ritual purity code outlined in the Torah.

There is Divine symbolism inherent in this portion too. In the biblical account of the early years in the desert, Moses throws the sweet branch specified by God into the bitter waters, and, behold, they are sweetened. Jewish wisdom thus suggests that adherence to Divine commands is the sweetness (symbolized by the branch) that alleviates illness (the bitter waters).

Some moderns, like Rabbi Harold Kushner, suggest that concentration on what the powerful and beautiful words of the 23rd Psalm can help in the healing process. So today, thousands of years after it was written, we lift up our eyes to the mountains – to our Divine shepherd – for the health and strength and wisdom to overcome whatever this challenging era demands.

PSALM 23 [1]

Lord, You are my shepherd;

I lack nothing.

You make me lie down in green pastures;

You lead me to water in places of repose;

You renew my life;

You guide me in right paths

as befits Your name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,

I fear no harm, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies,

You anoint my head with oil;

my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

For many long years.

[1] This modern translation is adapted from Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Eds. (New York: Oxford University Press [JPS], 2004), 1307.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.