Leper as Other
How to create a society that recognizes and meets the needs of ill and marginalized people.
Reaching out to the "Other"
In the biblical narrative, a leper was considered the ultimate "other," distinguishable by the white, scaly skin that was prone to painful peeling and oozing. While leprosy does not manifest in our society in the same way, the notion of "other" manifests fully.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas challenges us to appreciate the humanity of the "other" as the priests did with the leper. He asks us to imagine the world through the eyes of a baby that cannot yet speak. We know that pre-verbal infants only gradually develop the capacity to distinguish among objects and even between themselves and the outside world. Initially, everything seems to be an extension of themselves. This paradigm remains until the child develops the ability to differentiate. Once differentiation has begun, the child can separate the "self" from the rest of the world. The child can then understand that there are other lives that exist distinct from itself.
It is this recognition of separateness that calls on us to connect. By acknowledging the humanity of another person, we are effectively summoned to address his or her pain holistically. When we hear another person's cries, we are called to relieve the immediate symptoms and to attempt an understanding of the root cause of the problem.
According to Levinas, truly seeing the other is the only way to see the face of God. By extension, we are called to consider the needs of every person that we encounter with the same seriousness with which we would serve God.
In the midst of giving us the Torah, God tells the Jewish people that we are a nation of priests. In the context of Parshiot Tazria and Metzora, this designation suggests that each of us has the honor and responsibility of serving God by serving our fellow human beings.
Support for the Sick
As a nation of priests, how ought we to care for the other? What might it mean to foster a society that recognizes its sick and marginalized members and gives them the specific attention that they require? It means addressing the needs of all people, especially those who are the sickest and most in need of help. We must engage them in dialogue, provide aid to ameliorate their visible wounds while simultaneously providing support as they work to address their deeper struggles.
By heeding the call of our heritage to notice and attend to the sick of our global community, we too can do the work of God, just as our ancestors aspired to do so long ago. When we succeed in this sacred endeavor, we will surely rejoice in seeing the face of God.
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