Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi – 24 April 2020
Much has been written about ‘biblical medicine’ but it is debatable if there is such a thing. Certainly, it was not medicine as we know it. In the Torah, illness was seen as a result of wrongdoing. Healing came about by the restoration of Divine favour and was in the hands of priests and prophets. In this week’s Sidra, we read about a skin disease called ‘tzara’at’, often mistranslated as ‘leprosy’. The Priests were in charge of inspecting sufferers, isolating them and deciding when they could re-enter the camp.
Thankfully we have moved away from the notion of illness as a punishment. We know that disease often strikes at random, irrespective of someone’s moral character. We have also developed methods of treating and controlling disease which do not depend only on faith. Modern medicine works through scientific methods, which establish whether a cure is really effective or not. That is not to say that prayers can’t play a part in helping a person, but they are not to be depended on. The rabbis of the Talmud already showed an awareness that human beings were given authority from God to develop cures and that treatments could be evaluated rationally.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learnt from our Sidra and some of them ring true especially at this time. Although the language of impurity feels remote, the command to ensure that not only the sufferer but all their possession should be properly clean certainly feels relevant. More importantly, although sufferers are isolated, there is no stigma or criticism. They are treated humanely by the priest, who acknowledges their suffering. They are carefully looked at before they enter the camp to ensure they are no longer infectious but they are supported on re-entry. This is acknowledged by a ritual of transition. Rich or poor, the ritual allows them to recognise what they have gone through and prepares them for their return to normal life.
We have learnt in recent days that, despite the many successes of modern medicine, there is so much that is still unknown about how we can overcome this terrible virus. But we have also learnt that common humanity, kindness and compassion can help us get through. The dedication of medical and caring staff is an inspiration to all of us, as is the willingness of support workers to continue in such seemingly mundane and yet important work as collecting our rubbish. The determination of millions of people to help in whatever way they can is a testament to the good in the world. Although we cannot give a hug to someone who is bereaved or hold the hand of someone who is desperately ill, we can reach out in other ways. Like the biblical priests, we can give comfort and affirm the humanity and uniqueness of everyone who is suffering. This crisis has taught us so much and we have to learn its lessons to make a better future once it is over. We can never bring back those who have died but we can create a more compassionate society in their memory.
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