We do not really know what the biblical leprosy, that we read about this week’s portion of the Torah, is all about. Some assume it is the skin disease of that name today, others disagree. Regardless, it certainly was a condition that required identification by someone qualified to make the distinction between it and other body “swelling or a scab or a bright spot”, and potentially finding a remedy as best they could. Almost like a dermatologist of our days, who meticulously checks, often using a magnifying glass, for any skin abnormalities, so did the high priest of yesteryears. Like it or not, “a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests.” It was their job to investigate and decided based on a variety of signs if that was leprosy, possibly deteriorating to break out in a boil, or maybe something else. Anyway, if it was determined to be leprosy then “the priest shall isolate him for seven days”, otherwise, the “priest shall pronounce him clean.”
Lepers in Jerusalem 1913 outside Mary's Tomb in the Kidron Valley.
A diary of my life in the Holy Land. J. P. Smith printing company Rochester, N.Y., (1906) Breen, A. E. (Andrew Edward)
Some may mock or degrade this ancient teaching as being completely detached from our live experiences today. When we experience an affliction of the skin we simply go to the doctor to check it out, determine what it is, and receive the necessary treatment. Still, I think that there is a lesson to be learned here that echoes in our ears from a distant past. It is even more important these days when an outbreak of measles occurred due to persons not getting immunized. They may argue loudly against the risks involved in such immunization programs, saying that they are allegedly more of a risk than the illness itself.
This may be a good opportunity to speak about the difference between correlation and causation. Correlation is a statistical measure that describes size and direction of the relationship between two or more variables. It does not mean that there exists a cause and result relationship between the variables. That is what causation is all about – a cause and a result. I found a simple enough example in the web site of the Australian Bureau of Statistics that suggests these examples to distinguish between the two. Smoking increases the chance of having cancer – this is causation, smoking being the cause of the result, cancer. There is also a known correlation between smoking and alcoholism, however, alcoholism, as best known, is not caused by smoking. In the debate between being immunized or not it is important that we understand the difference in terminology and arguments made based on them. When there is a causation it would be prudent to assess the situation and consider the risks and benefits. It is something we do in many other aspects of our lives. The mere existence of a correlation should at best drive us to investigate further to understand if a cause exists or not.
It may be hard to believe but in the year 1800 less than 57% of children under five worldwide survived for over five years. A century later 68% survived, and by the year 2000 some 92%. By the year 2017 the number reached over 96%. Let us not kid ourselves, these statistics still mean that over six million children die every year from all causes, not only illnesses, and there is still much more to do. It is safe to assume that there are many reasons for this sharp drop over the last one hundred years in this mortality rate. There is no doubt in my mind that a significant contributor to this result is the wide spread use of immunization programs worldwide. Still there is ways to go. Over 10% of the deaths today of such children is the result of measles, pertussis or meningitis.
Going back to this week’s reading, the sick person is brought before the high priest for the purpose of diagnosing his or her illness. As a result, an as may be needed, various measures take place to both prevent further spread of the disease, and by that protecting the rest of the community, as well as an attempt to heal the patient. Like then, we today have a similar responsibility. We should not shy away from this responsibility. The last outbreak of measles is an experiment of unnecessary risk. It is much wiser to replace a high risk with a lower risk, it is rationale and prudent, especially when it has to do with our health. This was the case in the past and this is the case today.
Reuven Marko, 12 April 2019, 8 Nissan, 5779