The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is a double selection called Tazria-Metzora and is found in Leviticus 12:1-15:33. 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). 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.
God also gives Moses instructions for the rites of purification and the sacrifices that the m’tzora (person afflicted with tzara’at, or potentially contagious skin diseases) must bring in order to complete the process of ritual purification. Provisions are made so that a poor person can bring less costly sacrifices. A person could also discover tzara’at (mold, in this case) on the walls of his home. If so, a priest must examine it; if he declares that the house is afflicted with tzara’at, the affected stones must be removed and replaced. If the tzara’at returns, the house must be demolished. If it does not return, the priest performs the specified ritual of purification. The passage also includes rituals of purification regarding certain body fluids of men and women.
For those of us in the 21st century, these passages can be difficult, although it makes sense in an era when people are living in close proximity where medical science was 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 affected 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. Today, we should reach out to those in our community who are isolated and connect them to the community.
Another important element is the rituals of purification available to allow people who have been temporarily isolated from the community to become part of the community again. We also see that sacrifices included in the purification process were adjusted so they were affordable for all. Everyone had the opportunity to be right with God and connected to the community. It is important to note that when a person was in a state of impurity, a priest would meet with them outside the camp to meet with that person in order to decide if they were healed and could come back to the community. This required the priest to feel what it was like to be outside the camp and to walk in the shoes of the person that had been isolated. Only then could the person be healed. Likewise, it is important for us today to walk in other people’s shoes and to understand their circumstances before passing judgment.