The book of Leviticus is a tough one. Upon first glance, it is a book about ancient sacrifice and practices that died out long ago. However, if we look at the book from a different angle, the whole book of Leviticus is actually about returning to a state of holiness. In Judaism there exists a binary relationship between holy, which is known as Kodesh, and profane or mundane, which is known as chol (or as I like to describe it not-holy, not to be confused with unholy). Leviticus offers the idea that when we do something wrong or are infected or have a disease it makes the individual feel not-holy. Therefore, Judaism created rituals to help the individual return to a feeling of sacred holiness. It almost as if holiness were the default for human beings and therefore the book of Leviticus provides us a roadmap for how to return to that natural state of holiness.
In this weeks Torah portion Metzorah, the Torah tells the Israelites how to deal with leprosy, discharges and menstruation. There are two levels the book of Leviticus is always operating on two levels simultaneously. The book of Leviticus, and in fact the whole Torah, speaks both to the individual with the ailment and the community that must learn how to deal with it in order to return to a state of Kadosh.
Whether or not we would like to admit it, someone who is visibly sick has the potential to upset us. The sick person affects the people they are around as well as themselves. Someone who has a skin disease can make us cringe and feel uneasy and also feel the same about themselves. Leviticus offers us not a psychological reading of these feeling but a spiritual one. Leviticus offers the idea that diseased people and the community are not just affected physically and psychologically, but also spiritually. It is hard to ignore the reality that when something is off it throws everyone and everything in the community off and out of balance.
This week’s parasha offers a prescription for how to deal with the issue of the discomfort that disease brings to the community. The Torah says here that when someone is sick physically, we need to acknowledge that our social system has been upset and that disjunction needs to be dealt with. The fact that the sick person bothers us needs to be acknowledged and named. Disease affects everyone not just the one suffering from it, but also those exposed to it. In this day and age what we learn from this Torah portion is not just tolerance, but the importance of acknowledging that which upsets us. That which makes us feel not-Holy. The parasha does not tell us to turn away from the person suffering, but rather to look at them and deal with them. Deal with them with compassion but also honesty. The question for us is how do we deal with people we are uncomfortable with while also balancing honesty and compassion?
Rabbi Micah Ellenson