The next two weeks of Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora are often the most confounding in the Torah. And certainly the “ick” factor is at work. These portions deal with ritual impurity from childbirth, menstrual blood, skin diseases or rashes, semen and other bodily fluids. It describes spiritual impurities that arise even from mildews and fungus of cloth, wool and linen. This week’s portion Tazria tells us that the priest is the one that determines the actual infirmity and determines whether the individual or in the case of fabric or homes, are spiritual clean or unclean. It describes how long the person must remain outside the encampment, isolated from the community.
This isn’t about physical cleanliness. These are physical conditions that affect the soul! And part of being a holy nation is to strive for a spiritual purity and holiness. The sacrifices that we bring help us to purify our souls. But these conditions that are described put that purity at risk and prevents one from bringing a sacrifice or participating in the ritual of the people.
In truth, illness always affects more than the organ, more than the individual. Illness affects everyday life. When an individual is physically ill participating in the life of the community becomes difficult. Sometimes just the physical energy isn’t there. But also there are concerns of how others will see you. These problems are even greater when we confuse illness with divine punishment.
This portion of Leviticus has given rise to this notion that disease is somehow not just a physical ailment but it is a spiritual ailment. And here in the book of Leviticus we have the combination of the fear of menstrual blood and semen and the potential for life that is part of the back drop of sexual expression. This combination of ancient fears and ancient ignorance has led to far too much sexual repression. In the ancient world if one was physically sick or had a skin rash as described in this week’s portion there were few cures. Today we are heirs to such incredible improvements in medical science that we ought to move beyond the intertwining of spiritual dis-ease with physical disease. And yet it is so ingrained in our society that some still can’t say the word cancer aloud as if naming it will make one catch it!
The late author Susan Sontag wrote in her booklet, “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors” (1978 and 1988), “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.” Sontag was writing about cancer and an earlier feared disease of Tuberculosis. She later applied the same idea to AIDS.
For those who have a chronic disease like diabetes or HIV/AIDS or even cancer sometimes dealing with the reactions of others is harder than dealing with the physical ailments themselves. Too often those with chronic illnesses are seen as victims or are pitied by others. People see those with chronic conditions as less than whole as if perfection was the norm. Sontag in her essay urges “The most truthful way of regarding illness–and the healthiest way of being ill–is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”
Indeed, it is time to move beyond the metaphor. That is why one of the greatest counters to this Torah portion is our own laws of visiting the sick. That is why it is one of the most important mitzvoth. And our tradition teaches that we take away 1/60th of disease when we visit an ill person. Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick helps us smash the spiritual isolation caused by physical illness. And Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick helps us also counter-act the very idea that Sontag wrote about-that there is some moral contagion with physical illness. We are instructed to go visit. We are not to avoid our responsibility.
So make a pot of chicken soup for a sick friend and literally lift their spirits and their soul!