Cry of the Leper

What do we do with the things that frighten us most? Sometimes we have the will to overcome that which we wish we could run from, choosing not to hide away in the safety of our own bubble. We have the courage to face the demons, either personal or communal; we stare down the fear and come out the better for it.

But too often, when we are afraid of something, be it a person, an idea, a change, an illness or a truth we can’t face, we create real or imaginary barriers that seemingly protect us from that fear — until they don’t.

There comes a time, for each of us, when we stand face to face with our demons; it is in our response to this challenge that we often see some of the more beautiful moments in human life. In this week’s parsha, Tazria, we find one of those opportunities.

Tazria is about people and illness that frighten us the most: lepers and nasty skin afflictions.

Throughout our human history, lepers, and those with physical afflictions that make them appear scary and different, have been treated with disdain and fear — the wretched of the earth. Yet within this parsha of purification rites, we find a line that invites us into the deeper realm of what is possible, into a sod, a more hidden meaning of Torah.

Once a person is deemed by the priest to have leprosy, the Torah says he must run through the community screaming, “Impure, impure!” (Leviticus 13:45). On the face of it, this seems to be quite embarrassing and demeaning for the person, as they are forced to announce their illness in such a public way.

The Talmud, in Moed Katan 5a, articulates two opinions on why a person must scream out. Rabbi Abahu says that the leper calls out to warn the community of his illness, thereby advising us to stay away from him. And at times, this is natural and normal, for we all must protect ourselves and our communities from illnesses that threaten our health. But the Talmud responds with another interpretation of the calling out: the leper is to call out in order to arouse sympathy and mercy from the community. Twice the leper says tamei (impure), such that we are presented with two options for response: fear/protection and sympathy/mercy.

I believe the Talmud is instructing us to do both, for doing one without the other, in either direction, will leave us vulnerable. Fear without sympathy leaves us physically safe but spiritually and morally stricken; sympathy without protection threatens our very lives.

Together, we must find a way to respond to the greatest fears of our time, the greatest illnesses our of communities and the world at large, with this two-fold manifesto. Be it HIV/AIDS, war, genocide, poverty, racism, sexism, hate, vengeance or anything else we fear, we must all hear the cry of “impure, impure,” recognize that there is an affliction and treat it. Fear cannot stop us and mercy cannot blind us; rather by combining the two we can find a holy path to healing and repair.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh teaches that part of our job is to sometimes “stand apart from the community [like the priests], to signal when there is an outbreak of spiritual/moral/interpersonal/communal affliction, to intervene before the contaminant can spread, and to declare when the community has restored itself.” Rabbi Hirsh was speaking to rabbis when he said this, but I think it applies to each one of us. We each have the responsibility to recognize affliction and try to treat it. We cannot run away and say “that doesn’t affect me,” or “I am too afraid to deal with this.” There are needy voices calling out to us from all corners of the earth, from all corners of our own community; the Torah is teaching us this week that we must answer those calls.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at