Modern Untouchables: Our Sins Of Exclusion
Parashat Metzora calls attention to how we treat those who are excluded and alienated from our society.
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This is the Torah portion that becomes infamous at some point in one's Jewish education, recounting the unseemly details of a strange skin disease, tzaraat. Additionally, we become acquainted with the unfortunate consequences of the disease, as the afflicted one is alienated from the community until he or she is healed, welcomed back only after a purification ritual involving the kohen (priest), and an anointing of sanctified water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer.
Students of the Torah have been bothered for millennia--not only, to be sure, by the sheer aesthetic unpleasantness of this parashah, but also by the seemingly arbitrary nature of the affliction and the alienation it imposes. The ancient Rabbis are troubled by the absence of any rationale for the affliction of tzaraat. The Torah does not state what people do to contract it, nor is atonement effective as a cure.
Alienation and Affliction
But perhaps this is precisely the point--to raise the awareness of alienation and affliction in our midst. Seen in a broader context, the book of Leviticus calls our attention to the communal standards of holiness, and tzaraat reminds us that there is an underside to every society, even one predicated on such a lofty foundation. Where there is prosperity, bounty and harmony, there is also bound to be pain, alienation and discord.
In fact, the Torah as well as later Jewish tradition seizes upon the motif of tzaraat as symbolic of a breach among people as well as between people and God. For example, the Torah makes clear that Miriam is afflicted with tzaraat after she apparently speaks ill of Moses' wife. Following suit, rabbinic midrash portrays this skin affliction as a sign of enmity produced by lashon hara, the unrestrained tongue.
For an example of tzaraat as spiritual alienation, one can turn to the popular poem Yedid Nefesh, recited at the beginning of the service to greet Shabbat on Friday night. Here, the individual soul is "lovesick" for God, with the soul being so distant as to be like Miriam, suffering from tzaraat, to be cured only by Moses' plea to God: "El na r'fa na lah (please God, heal her)!"
This parashah calls attention to how alienation is experienced individually, and addressed by society. Tzaraat is indeed an unbearable affliction, but one that is sustained only for a short time until healing is found. Furthermore, the overwhelming feeling toward the afflicted one is empathy and compassion.