The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is called Tazria and is found in Leviticus 12:1-13:59. God instructs Moses and Aaron about tzara’at, a scaly skin disease traditionally translated as “leprosy” but clearly not the condition we call leprosy today. When a person developed a rash or other signs of skin disease, the priest was to examine it and determine if it was in fact tzara’at, which would render the person ritually impure (not the same as sin). If the diagnosis was uncertain, the priest was to quarantine the person for seven days and then examine him again. If the diagnosis was still uncertain, the person was to be isolated for another seven days; if the rash had not spread, he was declared ritually pure. Once a person was determined to have tzara’at, he was declared ritually impure and sent to live outside the camp. Tzara’at could affect fabrics as well as people. Once a priest had determined that an article of cloth or leather was affected it was to be burned.
For those of us in the 21st century, this passage can be difficult, although it makes sense in an era when people are living in close proximity where medical science is limited. It was important to keep the spread of potential disease or sickness, either from persons with certain contagious skin diseases or from articles of clothing (even the materials on houses) that may be effected with what is likely mold, mildew, or a similar substance. The person’s isolation would be important if something was contagious. If the area was not spreading or seemed to be healing, the person would be welcomed back into the community. Likewise, it would have been difficult for the people to remove mildew or similar substances from leather or other types of cloth; therefore, burning would have probably been the healthiest response. Today we know that molds can make people ill.
The important message of the passage for us today is to realize that, while we do not generally isolate people today who have certain types of skin diseases, we still have a tendency to isolate people we feel are “unclean” for a variety of reasons. It may be someone’s health condition, lifestyle, or social situation that creates a stigma, and subsequent isolation. The role of the priest in the passage was to make sure that people who had been separated from the community could be restored to the community. Likewise, we should reach out to those in our community who are isolated and connect them to the community.