On this Shabbat we read two portions of the Torah, both of which go into much details regarding cases that require cleansing. There are different reasons for the need to cleanse, and different ways to cleanse. There is cleansing of a person, and there are rules for the cleansing of a garment and of a house. When a person is suspected of suffering from leprosy, according to the bible, that person needs to head to the priest to be inspected and the priest determines what it is that this person may be suffering from. If it is determined that this is a case of leprosy then “He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The priest has identified a case of a contagious disease which requires that a person be separated from the presence of other people. IT is a tough decision and therefore the person suspected of such a problem is brought before the ultimate authority of those days, the priest.
This is a serious case of rights, on one hand the right of a sick person and on the other, the right of a society to protect itself from a contangoes disease. It is therefore that the priest has another duty and that is the time when the leper may return to camp. Therefore, “the priest shall go out to the outside of the camp. Thus the priest shall look, and if the infection of leprosy has been healed in the leper”. The priest is not allowed to remain in the safe haven of the camp and leave the leper to his fate. Rather, he is required to leave camp and go and check upon the leper and thereafter perform a ritual that includes first washing “his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe in water and be clean. Now afterward, he may enter the camp, but he shall stay outside his tent for seven days.” After which another ritual will take place so that the now healed leper can join the camp once more.
These days it would be quite easy to replace the word “leprosy” with “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19”, maybe ignoring some of the rituals that require, for example, “to take two live clean birds and cedar wood and a scarlet string and hyssop for the one who is to be cleansed. The priest shall also give orders to slay the one bird in an earthenware vessel over [running water. As for the live bird, he shall take it together with the cedar wood and the scarlet string and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slain over the running water. He shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the live bird go free over the open field.” I guess we readily realize that today, just like then, there are some illnesses that require drastic measures of confinement so that contamination may be avoided or prevented. Nevertheless, there is a duty of the people who remain in camp, those who are healthy, to remain committed to the sick person and find the first possible opportunity, after the person healed, to get that person back to camp.
Leprosy is not confined to people and houses may also suffer from it. It may be different in appearance but may still be tough to cure. When it takes hold in a building “priest shall then command that they empty the house before the priest goes in to look at the mark, so that everything in the house need not become unclean”. If the priest concludes that the house is a leprous house then he quarantines it for seven days and then comes back to reinspect it. “If the mark has indeed spread in the walls of the house, then the priest shall order them to tear out the stones with the mark in them and throw them away at an unclean place outside the city. 41 He shall have the house scraped all around inside, and they shall dump the plaster that they scrape off at an unclean place outside the city. Then they shall take other stones and replace those stones, and he shall take other plaster and replaster the house.” However, if after this attempted fix this did not solve the problem, and the priest “sees that the mark has indeed spread in the house, it is a malignant mark in the house; it is unclean. He shall therefore tear down the house, its stones, and its timbers, and all the plaster of the house, and he shall take them outside the city to an unclean place.” Unlike a person, a house may be not fixable but it is replaceable and it is better not to take an unnecessary risk. This is not the case with people, there it is a duty to try and find a cure and then return that person back to camp.
We at the Israel Reform Movement call this Shabbat between Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day, Shabbat Tekuma, meaning “revival”. It is a Shabbat that connects the deepest of depths of the Holocaust to the heights of national independence. In between, and just before Independence Day, we have Memorial Day to reflect upon the high cost in young lives that has to, unfortunately, be paid in order to protect ourselves and our people, from near as well as afar. Sometimes in this new house that we have built we find brick that are contaminated and those must be quickly moved out to an unclean place. Sometimes we have people who endanger us all because of their bigotry, intolerance, indifference, hate and lack of a moral spine.
We are living in a time where we may be looking at a national leadership that seem to have lost the ability to clearly differentiate between right and wrong, between the ways that lead us to a safe haven to those that drag us towards netherworld. It is as if something cancerous is plaguing it to make it difficult for it to properly navigate us through dire straits. They are building a leprous house that some of its bricks must be already taken out and be driven to an unclean place. Yes, especially at a time like this it is essential to quote from this week’s special reading of the Haftarah by the prophet Isaiah, “Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her; Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her”. Even when you mourn for her it is also necessary to rejoice. From this leprosy we can recover, we can get rid of it, and return the people safely and healthy to camp, and always hope for the best.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, Happy Independence Day and wishes for good health to all.
Reuven Marko, 24 April 2020, 1 Iyar, 5780