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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Outside the Camp

by Rabbi Ilay Ofran (Posted on April 18, 2024)
Topics: Metzora, Sefer Vayikra, Torah

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Translated from the Hebrew by Elisha Gordan

Parashat Metzora is famously difficult to unpack. It deals with obscure illnesses that can render a human impure and the convoluted processes of purification that can counteract those effects. These illnesses are mostly unknown today, and the laws detailed in the parasha have fallen out of practice. Nonetheless, if we probe deeply enough, we find that our eternal Torah is teaching a lesson that might well have been written for our generation.

At the end of the previous parasha, Tazria, the Torah proclaims its law of the leper: the leper will “dwell outside of the camp”. This law appears again at the start of the book of Numbers, where we are commanded to send “every leper, זב, (zav, a type of bodily discharge) and טמא לנפש (tamei l’nefesh, one who has become impure through exposure to a corpse)” from the camp. The reasoning behind this law is fairly easy to grasp. The Torah tells us that impurity is contagious. The impurities mentioned are likely to spread to others, and so the safest course is to remove the affected person from the camp. The underlying concern in this case is preserving the camp’s purity.

One verse, however, that appears in the beginning of our parasha, teaches us a meaningful and deep lesson about our relationship to the person banished from the camp. In order to determine whether a leper can begin the purification process, the Torah commands that “the priest must go outside the camp,” meaning that the priest’s responsibilities extend to those who are outside “our camp”. The priest must put in the work to travel to those who have been removed. Spiritual and religious leadership cannot be satisfied with erecting boundaries around the camp and distancing anyone who is not “pure”. Instead, its obligations extend to those outside the camp as well.

Moreover, the language of the verse emphasizes this point. It does not write that the priest must go “out of the camp”, but rather he must go “to the outside of the camp”. The superfluous “to” creates the impression that the Torah relates to “outside the camp” as a specific, boundaried location that can be traveled to. From the verse’s language, “outside of the camp” is not just any place outside the camp, but rather to a named place where those who have been separated from the camp live. This reading further supports the idea that the Torah widens society’s responsibility to include even those outside of it.

When the Torah describes the leprous house, it assigns responsibility to the priest to return again and again to the house to diagnose the ailment and later to assist in purifying it. From the moment the homeowner asks the priest to visit the house, the priest is called upon time and again to visit the house. Jewish priests cannot just take their leisure in the Temple while members of their community are grappling with difficult afflictions. The religious leadership is obligated to leave its comfort zone and to arrive at the home of the simple person and assist them in the healing process.

The Talmud in Masechet Berachot (28a) tells the story of Rabban Gamaliel who served as Patriarch and came to the house of Rabbi Yehoshua to placate him after he insulted him in the Beit Midrash. When he saw the black walls of Rabbi Yehoshua’s house, Rabban Gamaliel told him that “from the walls of your house it seems you are a blacksmith” – he had not previously realized Rabbi Yehoshua’s employment.  Rabbi Yehoshua responded in anger and disappointment, “Woe to the generation that has you as its leader. For you do not know the struggles of your disciples, how they support themselves and how they eat.” The expectation of the spiritual leader is to frequent the homes of the community, and through this effort to understand their daily challenges and difficulties. The leader who remains in the Beit Midrash and is not familiar with the public’s hardship is disqualified from serving as a leader.

Despite the fact that the laws of nega’im (leprosy-like afflictions) are not practiced today, they carry a lesson that remains as relevant as ever. Parashat Metzora impels us to expand our circle of responsibility to include those who are outside the camp, to hear the calls of those knocking on the doors of “our” camp, and open those doors, and our hearts, to them. I will merely suggest that it is possible that one of the keys that may lead to this change in our time is bound up in the understanding that nowadays we should not relate to someone who finds themselves outside the camp as a zav or leper.

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