Rabbi Danny Rich
Parashat Metsora is really a continuation of the portion of last week, Tazria – indeed in some years they are read as a joint weekly
The basis of both is ritual status, the capacity to be in a ‘clean’ enough state to carry out certain religious functions and the process by which one can restore one’s ‘clean’ status.
Last week readers would have learnt about what is ritually required for a woman after childbirth and for persons suffering from a skin disease, and Metsora (14:1-32) opens with a detailed description of the purification ritual of one who has been declared impure.
Perhaps more striking to the modern reader is an examination of a mould or blight which causes discolouration in the mud used to cover building stones (14:33-53).
The remainder of the portion deals with the ritual procedure following a discharge from the sexual organs -whether male or female.
All of these matters are perceived from the perspective of the ancient mind whereby childbirth, physical illness and rising damp are understood in cultic or religious terms. Thus it is the priests, the cultic ministers, to whom the people turn for assistance.
Today -and despite all our hopes – Covid still stalks our lives and it is to experts in the fields of medicine, risk assessment, and disease control that we look to for solutions.
The modern rabbi is not usually an expert in these fields, preferring instead the texts of Judaism, moral choices and community leadership. I am confident that I am not alone in being asked for advice about Covid and the return to synagogue services and other communal events.
In such cases there are differing interests to balance including those of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, the clinically vulnerable and those with an iron constitution, the cautious and those desperate to resume ‘normal’ activity.
The Hebrew Bible in parashiyot Tazria and Metsora gives a clue in prescribing a role for the priest in the diagnosing and ritual purifying of those who were suffering from a disease which was feared by the people of the time. The procedure involved identification, treatment, and, in some cases, isolation and, most dramatically, a requirement for the sufferer to declare ‘Impure, impure!’
This final proviso which may remind us of the leper’s bell might initially cause us to recoil but the Babylonian Talmud (Moed Katan 5a) remarks that the purpose of such a declaration serves not only as a warning to others but should elicit compassion and prayer on behalf of the sufferer.
Arising from this text are the beginnings of a modern health ethic. The initial response to illness is compassion and prayer and certainly not judgment or condemnation. Today -and I serve as a chaplain in an acute London district hospital – ‘the compassion and prayer’ is met by the National Health Service in all its manifestations and its occasional failings too.
Yet the right to safe, effective and kindly health care is balanced by obligations: to recognise when one is ill, to reduce (where possible) the illness’s damage to oneself and to others, and to acknowledge that even the most advanced healthcare system demands a sense of responsibility from its users.
As we approach Pesach, zeman cherutanu: the season of our freedom -and we look askance at events in Ukraine – we can be reminded that the benefits of liberty in a modern democracy include health care.
For all its imperfections, democracy including individual liberty, competitive political parties, a free press and transparent public services is a treasured way of life, and we undermine it by cynicism or worse at our peril.
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