Who are our modern-day metzoraim, the people who are pushed outside of normal society and keep distant and hidden from everyone else?
The metzora is not a leper, but he is much like one. He has a serious skin disease and is sent outside of the Israelite camp, in an area that would eventually become outside of the city walls of the Land of Israel. We are told that he himself must announce his impure status – “‘Impure! Impure!’ He shall call out.” He must warn everyone to keep their distance, and he is then sent outside of the camp – “בָּדָ֣ד יֵשֵׁ֔ב – He must live alone. Outside of the camp is his dwelling place” (Leviticus 13:46).
The case of the metzora challenges us to think who in our society are those people whom we have cast outside, people with whom we would rather not engage or ideally even see because they make us uncomfortable, because we are afraid of catching what they have?
Initially, I had seen this as a metaphor for those with disabilities, a topic that is close to my heart. As a parent of two boys on the Autism spectrum, I have felt more than once the harsh sting of “impure,” the active and passive ways that my children were excluded from community, friends, and Jewish institutions. And historically speaking, those with disabilities, particularly those with developmental and social-emotional ones, were put in insane asylums and other institutions, kept out of sight and mind of “civilized” society. If we don’t see them, we can pretend that they don’t exist.
This reality is true, as are its parallels to the metzora. And yet from the Torah’s perspective, people with disabilities, at least physical ones, are recognized as very much among us. Not only are we to see them as equal members of society, we are also given explicit mitzvot to avoid the tendency that some might have to abuse and mock them. “You shall not curse the deaf” and “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” are core mitzvot in the Torah. We have much work to do on the individual and societal level to live up to these mitzvot, to create a society free of bias, barriers, and exclusion. Yet because of those mitzvot, it would not make sense to map the metzora onto these cases. So then, who is a metzora?
As I see it, the metzora serves as a metaphor for the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Hospitals and nursing homes are absolutely essential institutions for society, and they provide the sick and elderly with life-saving care.
And yet, as institutions, they also keep the sick and elderly outside of society, away from our homes and our parks, our synagogues and shopping centers. Many people prefer it this way. Being around the sick or the elderly makes them feel uncomfortable. It is so much easier to have them where they need not be seen. Isn’t it amazing how there are almost no really infirm or sick people in our homes and on our streets!
We cannot allow ourselves to accept this attitude of banishing the sick. Someone has to step up and create a different reality.
Who is the one who tends to the metzora? It is the Kohen. He figures so prominently in our parsha that the word “הַכֹּהֵ֖ן – The Kohen” appears over 80 times. It is the Kohen who constantly engages with the metzora: checking up on him during the various stages of the development of the tzaraat, and being the one to go out to him when he is healed in order to purify him and bring him back into the camp.
Who serves as our Kohen? The answer is obvious: It is the rabbi. Rabbis are the ones who do the pastoral care, the ones who make bikkur cholim calls. They are the ones who are present for the sick, and who make regular visits to the hospitals and the nursing homes. They represent us when we cannot be bothered to be there ourselves. But we have to be bothered.
We have offloaded onto the rabbi a responsibility that belongs to all of us equally. There are communities that recognize this, particularly in the form of bikkur cholim groups. And yet, even in those communities, we are talking about a small number of individuals. For all the rest of us, it becomes another form of vicarious fulfilment.
The person who steps us has to be each one of us. While the Torah speaks of the Kohen in the case of the metzora, Chazal teach us, again and again, the central mitzvah of bikkur cholim. This mitzvah is rooted in “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” a mitzvah which tells us that we must act in the same way we would want to be treated. Beyond that, it is a mitzvah rooted in the core principle that everyone –sick, infirm or elderly–is our neighbor. Everyone is in society among us.
In the age of COVID, this mitzvah has been made easier for us. We Zoom in, we don’t have to travel, we don’t have to encounter directly, we don’t have to over-extend ourselves. This has allowed many more people to visit the sick, undoubtedly. But such Zoom visits, as important as they are, are only a small part of what bikkur cholim is about. Being physically present demands more from us, but it is so much more helpful. Chazal tell us that one who is present with the sick takes away 1/60th of her illness. This is true in a very practical way. When one is present, it lifts spirits. The visitor can advocate for the patient, and this makes a real difference. Doctors and nurses pay more attention to those who have guests, to those who have others who care for them. Perhaps most importantly, our physical presence helps make the one we are visiting connected to the larger human reality and the life that exists outside the hospital. We make them part of our society.
It is our responsibility to do this mitzvah, to not let just the rabbi be the Kohen. Like the Kohen, we must visit and be engaged with the sick, during their illness, and when it is time to bring them back into society. We must, in fact, ensure that they never leave.