Leper as Other

How to create a society that recognizes and meets the needs of ill and marginalized people.

Commentary on Parashat Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33

Parshat Metzora, and previously, Parshat Tazria, describe the process of determining whether or not a person is a leper. In ancient times, leprosy was interpreted as a physical affliction caused by the moral transgression of gossip. We read in the Torah that Moses‘ sister, Miriam, suffered this terrible disease as a consequence of her malicious speech — the external affliction of leprosy was inextricably linked to her immoral action.

The Torah teaches that during the early stages of what seemed to be a serious skin affliction, a sick person would stand before a Kohen (priest) who would diagnose the illness. If it was determined that the person was a leper, he or she would be expelled from the community for the duration of the recovery process.

The Priests’ Response

Given this potential outcome, it seems reasonable to suspect that a person visiting a priest for diagnosis would be frightened. It also seems likely that the  priest would view such a person as a likely sinner, as one perhaps already guilty. Yet the tradition emphasizes that the priests, in an incredible display of care and compassion, demonstrated an ongoing commitment to each person’s inherent humanity and dignity regardless of the leprosy determination.

From the moment that a negah (a plague or affliction) appeared on an Israelite’s skin, the priests were involved. They would wash the affected area, shave the hair from the body, and observe the nature and progression of the affliction. The priests monitored the wound for up to two weeks. After this period, the afflicted person was either pronounced clean and permitted to resume normal life or declared a leper. In the latter case, the public health needs of the community were made paramount and the patient was placed outside the community until fully healed.

Until the moment of removal from communal life, the potential leper represented an important obligation for community leaders. Even though community health and ritual purity were their primary responsibilities, the priests spent time addressing each person individually, seeing each face, and understanding each person’s pain.

This ethic underlies the priests’ decision to wait two weeks before making the difficult ruling of expelling a member of the community. They realized that the sickness not only affected the skin and they took time to see past the surface affliction to engage with the person. This allowed them to see themselves reflected in the suffering eyes of the sick. Their attention to each individual and their work to treat even the smallest signs of illness are worthy of praise and emulation.

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 preverbal 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 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.

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Discover More

Gittin 59

Priests, Levites and Israelites.

Gittin 61

The ways of peace.