During my year studying in Israel during the late nineties, a friend asked me to join her as she worked with students with special needs. As we traveled to the school not far from her home in Kfar Saba, I remember going down an isolated road and ending up at a school that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It occurred to me then that Israel has a difficult time dealing with the “other”. After just traveling back to the country for the first time in over a decade, I’m not sure that much has been changed.
In this week’s double portion of Tazria-Metzorah, God speaks to Moses about the various skin diseases and situations that can make an Israelite impure. Swelling, rashes, discoloration, and even the remains of a burn — a condition that I am particularly sensitive to at the moment — could cause one to be evaluated by the Kohein for temporary placement outside of the camp. The term that the Torah uses for this variety of skin diseases is tzara’at. In English, it was translated as leprosy. But clearly, it is not what we now know as leprosy, Hansen’s disease. Eczema and psoriasis are more likely the appropriate diagnosis, which is why the condition was usually able to run its course and the afflicted were able to return to the camp. Who knows how many people with leprosy were persecuted throughout the years due to this error in translation?
I’ve always thought that many of the rules in the Torah are designed for creating a cohesive group. It seems clear that the Torah is suggesting that people who might have something physically weird happening should be separated from the camp. This was a common sense health precaution. There is even discussion that if a house has a fungus, the priests are to quarantine the house for seven days. If the mold is gone in seven days, repairs are made to the house and offerings are brought to the sanctuary. I remember hearing about the mold that destroyed the houses after Katrina and I have a friend who is particularly sensitive to mold, so this would make sense. But, of course, that was in New Orleans below sea level and not in the dry middle east.
The rabbis, not yet knowing about contamination and science, seeking an answer for the scales and fungus, concluded that the condition must be the result of God’s displeasure. The afflicted must have done something wrong! The idea that this condition could happen for another reason was beyond them. So they were separated and when the condition cleared, they returned, and offerings were required. If the person was poor, an adjustment was made so that they could fulfill the mitzvah and rejoin the camp.
Rather than trying to make sense of this ancient ritual, I’m wondering, how are we about treating the “other” in our day and age? Are we welcoming to others who may seem different from us? The news is all abuzz about a young man who was killed, seemingly because he was simply the “other” in his neighborhood. We have a president of our country who is still considered to be an “other” by many, despite more than adequate proof given that he is a true-born American. And recently, I wrote about a group of black Jews who, while living their lives as halachic Jews, clearly may not have fulfilled the proper requirements to become Jews. Yet, they are believing and practicing. And, who am I to question their authenticity? If someone says they are a Jew, we believe them. Yet, on that blog post, I received comments making it clear that they weren’t Jews. Comments from people whose own authenticity I accept, simply because they say they are who they are.
As we read this portion of Tazria-Metzorah, let us consider: are we making a divide between those who can be inside our camp and those who must remain outside? Are we drawing the lines exclusively? Or are the walls porous and welcoming to all? I believe that it is only by welcoming one another as we are, and for who we say we are, that we really do tikkun olam, the work of repairing the world.