Upholding the Dignity of the Sick

Parshat Metzora

Leviticus 14:1-15:33

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora is a partner portion with last week’s Tazria.  Most often these two portions are read together but this is a leap year and they are separated to accommodate the extra Shabbatot.  A metzora is one who is afflicted with tzarat.  In older Bible translations tzarat was often translated as leprosy.  But this

isn’t the disease we know today as leprosy.  Tzarat is some kind of skin affliction.  And the Metzora is one who has this illness.

Our torah portion opens with instructions for bringing the person who has been isolated because of this skin affliction back into the community of Israel. Through an elaborate ritual sacrifice that the priest offers on behalf of the metzora the individual becomes spiritually clean and able to enter back into his or her daily life.

The arcane rituals presented here are not our emphasis. But in truth the Torah teaches us a special message this week about inclusion of those who have had a traumatic illness.  It teaches us inclusion and welcome.  It teaches us not to dwell on someone’s physical trauma or disfigurement due to illness. It teaches us an ethical value that everyone can be welcomed back into the life of the people. And these rituals are also presented in a way to help the individual who was struggling with the illness of tzarat see him or herself fully recovered and ready to be affirm life again.

It is hard enough to have an illness that separates us from the community.  The woman with breast cancer who has struggled mightily or the man with prostate cancer who has had sensitive surgery and takes a few weeks to recover has to find a way back to daily life.  Especially as our medical knowledge and treatments continue to improve (certainly better than in Biblical times!) and we are able to treat more conditions and have a positive life -affirming outcome, many people who would have succumbed to their medical conditions now return to health!  What are the ways we help our friends and our family slowly regain their footing and help them see their own vitality and strength?  What are the rituals that help the transplant patient move from seeing her or himself as victim to wholeness again?  How do we move beyond the trauma of the illness and seeing oneself as less the whole and move toward that sense of wholeness and completeness (shleymut)?

This is the exact case that our portion discusses; the return to health.  But it is not enough to simply enter back into daily life.  The Torah teaches us that that there is a spiritual component.  We ought to give thanks for the ability to return to our daily lives and acknowledge that our affliction whatever it was whether it was cancer, a heart attack, or something less life-threatening as even a virus or the flu does affect our souls not only our bodies.

When we have been sick we are changed.  But we also have to try to move toward healing and the hope that we can return to our daily activities. We pray for healing for those in our community with a mishabeyrach prayer.   We help those who have faced a life threatening situation acknowledge their gratitude to God for being saved by benching gomel.  So too for the metzora, who with great ceremony and ritual sacrifice is repatriated to community.  We ought to do something for all of us who have faced such physical and emotional challenges and create rituals to welcome the individual back into the arms of the community and to uplift the self-worth and dignity of the person who has been ill.

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