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Torah Commentary
Tazria/M'tzora (April 29, 2017)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. — Leviticus 13:3

When I was in religious school, we looked at this parashah and said, “Leprosy — how gross! And who cares anyway?” By then, we knew that leprosy, also called Hansen’s Disease, was almost obsolete. And it never had been particularly contagious, if reasonable steps to avoid infection were taken by those dealing with the patients.

But let us look at what happened in Leviticus if the priest pronounced the leper “unclean.” The leper was exiled outside of the camp, and if he was not subsequently pronounced healed and readmitted to the camp, then the Israelites could move on and leave him on the side of the road, probably to die. In more recent times, leper colonies were created, and while the lepers did receive treatment, they were not allowed into society and lived out their days in isolation.

Today leprosy is not a problem, but lepers are, if we define the word leper to mean outcast. Each generation has its own lepers. When AIDS first appeared in the US in the 1980s, the epidemic of fear and misinformation was as damaging to AIDS patients and their friends and families as the disease itself. It took years before most people understood that the HIV virus was not transmitted through casual contact. Now, we know. Last spring, my son and I saw a revival of “Falsettos,” the musical about a man who leaves his marriage for a gay relationship. AIDS figures prominently in the story, yet it is billed as a comedy, and no one stalked out of the theatre in disgust. Hysteria, like the hysteria about leprosy, has just faded away.

But how many lives were ruined, not just by AIDS, but by the hysteria that grew up around it? Time and again, individuals and institutions make tragic mistakes because of fear or prejudice. Think of the Japanese-Americans who were forced to live in internment camps, virtual prisons, during World War II because the United States was at war with a country many of them had never known. We Jews were seen as unclean for centuries and confined in ghettos so as not to infect our gentile neighbors. Who are we to decide that someone is unclean, simply because he or she is different?

I am well aware that these are dangerous times. As I write these words, television and the Internet are reporting the latest news of two bombings of Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday. Terrorist groups and individuals threaten the democratic way of life. Still, if we start to see all members of a religion or national group as evil, we only make the world more dangerous.

Sure, we must take reasonable steps to protect ourselves and our society. I am reassured by the police I see every time I go to Temple. They are doing their job, and we must do ours: “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8) If we work toward that end, the world will be a better place.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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