Were I to rank the Torah readings in terms of interest and ‘first glance relevancy’; this week’s double portion of Tazria and Metzora would rank near the bottom. Reading about a skin disease in all its grotesque and graphic details, would not be my initial idea of inspiring scripture. Follow up with an equally grotesque account of a home afflicted with a type of enigmatic plague, and you have a truly unsavory double feature. However, such a first glance reading would be premature. Upon further examination, Tazria and Metzora convey important ideas about community health standards; about protecting the collective while still upholding the dignity of the individual. We learn about some kind of curable skin affliction (many texts inaccurately translate the skin affliction as leprosy) which requires temporary quarantine and isolation for the affected person. The Torah describes how isolation means placing the sick individual away from the general population to avoid any sort of epidemic.
In terms of health standards, the isolation of a sick individual is certainly justified. As parents, many of us have experienced the joys of lice, strep throat and childhood diseases, which need to be identified before others are similarly afflicted. I recall taking a cruise just after learning about a health epidemic on a previous cruise. At every meal and every public event, cruise employees greeting us at the door with disinfecting towels. The Torah conveys how one’s physical health is just as important as one’s spiritual health.
On the other hand, while protecting the community we need to preserve the dignity of the one afflicted. When forced into temporary isolation (and most of the time such isolation is not the result of malice on the afflicted person’s part) that individual may suffer some humiliation and trauma. We must be emphatic when explaining that our focus is the affliction itself-and not the character of the afflicted.
Today, we can address all types of ‘afflictions’ which cause a person to feel the sense of isolation. Aside from contagious diseases and illnesses, people experience the trauma of physical and emotional isolation in various ways. Some have experienced heartbreaking isolation due to AIDS. Others have suffered isolation as victims of ongoing bullying. As autism becomes more widely identified, children on the autism spectrum (no matter how high functioning they may be) encounter social isolation from their more socially accepted, athletically inclined peers. This acute sense of isolation is not only due to insensitivity of children; but also due to the insensitivity and ignorance of adults, who encourage their students to stay away from anyone ‘out of the box’. As a result, we contribute to the lack of self worth which affects young people for whom being different is a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor.
Tazria/Metzora enables us to take a second glance at how we respond to those living in forced physical or emotional isolation and exile. Hopefully, as we acknowledge one’s specific ‘affliction’ we will also reaffirm the dignity of the one afflicted. By doing so, we can restore a sense of honor to our society.