There is nothing much tougher than the doubledose of physical affliction we see from our Torah portion(s) this week. Parashat Tazria-Metzorah can be alien and foreboding, yet it points to some of the real functions of our contemporary society. Outside of physicians, we are seldom involved in diagnosing symptoms of disease, whether it is on human flesh and certainly not in the walls of our homes (recall that the malady first affected a person’s home).
Bear in mind that in biblical Israel the kohen, priest, was both the religious AND medical authority. Some may consider tzara-at the equivalent to what you and I know as leprosy, but our Etz Hayim Chumash is careful to note it is “not the disease known by that name today”. We need not dwell on that.
We do need to dwell on bikkur cholim, the committee that engages members of our community in crisis, aiding people whose bodies, homes and families are crumbling. While our inclination may be to turn away in discomfort, as Jews we are instructed to turn towards them. Think about the poor person afflicted with tzara-at or any malady for that matter. Some ascribe their affliction as a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise precipitated by loshon hora (evil tongue) and motzi sheim ra (being guilty of slander). I am not a fan of the rabbinic rush to “blame” the affliction.
To the contrary, I celebrate the rabbinic insistence on bikkur cholim, visiting the ill, as a core practice within Jewish piety. Such visits bolster a role that the medical staff cannot provide. Some in the medical community are at least at times guilty of seeing not a person but a collection of symptoms, i.e. “the hernia in room 412”. As one who grew up in a home where my father took medical calls every night, I am not faulting anyone.
Where am I going? Our challenge and opportunity is to see not only the symptoms but the person. When we sit with a person who is ill and comfort and console them, we are giving them a sense of dignity to define his or her own situation.
There is a profound Chasidic insight to our parsha (13:3) by Rav Yisrael Mikunta (found in Itturei Torah 4:71) discussing the kohen’s inspection of the malady. The verse begins with the kohen viewing the wound so that he may diagnose it based on the medical criteria of tzara-at. At the end of the verse, the kohen sees the person. The notion is that it is often tempting to focus on individuals’ flaws and to forget to view them in the fullness of their beings. He cites Balak, the king who directed Balaam to curse the nation of Israel, when he said (Numbers 23:13) “you may see his edge, but not all of him”.
The lesson is paramount. We often find ourselves focused on the flaws, the wounds and points of weakness of another. A doctor must examine the disease, and a teacher must test the knowledge and skill of a student. But beyond that threshold, we must broaden our gaze to examine the whole person. This is the Torah’s command of the kohen, and it is a good instruction for all of us who would serve as God’s instruments in helping to heal the broken-hearted.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham