This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl
Every year it is challenging to speak about these Sedras, either separately or together. Therefore, some context before I extrapolate from them. The Torah includes these portions about disease because the Torah is the story of the evolution of an entire civilization, which must include matters of disease and health. At the same time, however, one should not be critical of a generation for what was characteristic of it. We cannot measure their ways by 21st century standards. What can we learn from Tazria-Metzora is about the consequences of ignorance.
The rabbis who lived after the generation of the Torah nevertheless chose to attribute what they thought was leprosy as a result of moral failure, making Metzora an acronym for the Hebrew words for gossip (“Motzi Shem Ra”). The disease was probably actually a variety of ailments, all of which they thought to be contagious. Miriam, the sister of Moses (Numbers 12:10) is stricken when she speaks ill of Moses. The hand of Moses (Exodus 4:1 and 6) becomes diseased when he doubts God’s and his own ability to be believed by the people. By the way, the last hospital in America for people with Hansen’s disease in the USA was closed in the early 1980’s.
Long before we knew that the disease was not caused by moral failure, but our ignorance and the fear which it generated had already hurt many people in many generations. Here are the ways in which this kind of ignorance is so dangerous and damaging.
Making it all a result of moral failure is a “blame the victim” approach which can cause much pointless suffering and avoiding the real problems. For example, there have been in recent years those on the extreme right of the Jewish community who still say the Holocaust was, like the destruction of the Temple, caused by the failure of the Jewish people to obey God’s will.
Ignorance and fear lead to isolation. We know what it means to be locked in a Ghetto. At one time, leper colonies existed in Hawaii where lepers were forced to live away from the community. Further, even when we already knew how AIDS was a transmitted people shunned those with the disease. Remember what happened to Alan Turing because he was a homosexual. The wrong was only completely righted not that long ago.
Call it labeling or stereotyping, we Jews know about this only too well. I cannot mention some of the names we were called. Think about the ways we have been portrayed in anti-Semitic cartoons. I was painfully reminded that when I was growing up in America, “the land of the free and the brave,” African Americans were segregated in cruel ways as portrayed in two movies I have seen- “The Help” and very recently here in St. Albans “Hidden Figures.” The former is about the way African Americans were treated like the slaves of Egypt when they worked in American homes. The latter is about a number of women who were mathematical and engineering geniuses but were isolated and mistreated in the American space program during the 1960’s.
Only in 1991 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, did the US start making accommodations for the physical and mentally disabled a requirement, did we stop calling people “retarded.” Some would call this change and many other changes in the language we use to describe people with “special needs” politically correct, meaning phony. The old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” is wrong. More often, the new names we call these conditions are morally correct and long overdue.
The truth is that in so many ways we have not come very far in correcting all of these wrongs caused by fear and ignorance. Had we truly progressed there would not be the kind of pandemic called “bullying” nor would America have the kind of president we have who called Mexicans rapists and publicly mimicked a disabled journalist. Unfortunately the world is also increasingly populated by national leaders like Assad, Putin and Erdogan who are far worse.
These present realities remind us that we have not learned that much from the days of Tazria-Metzora and sadly the moral failure is ours!