It is so easy – and so tempting – to draw simple conclusions from our Torah text. For instance, the rabbis have always connected tzara’at, the scaly skin disease in this week’s Torah portion, with gossip. They have suggested that the consequence for speaking ill of someone else is to be isolated from the rest of the camp while healing. On the surface, this makes sense: say bad things, get a physical mark that shows you’ve been bad, and then have a “time out” so you will stop saying bad things. We see this happen later in our Torah when Miriam is stricken with a scaly-white skin disease after she speaks ill of her brother, Moses, and his wife. She heals outside the camp and returns only after she is physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready.
But I don’t think we can – or should – accept this concept as it is presented.
While we know that our actions can have consequences, the Torah is not so black and white as to suggest that illness is caused by poor behavior. As someone who, just three years ago, received a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (and thank God, everything is now OK!), I can attest to the fact that when illness befalls a person, the first thing we think is, “what did I do wrong?” This theology is flawed and certainly not the intention of the Torah.
The message of Tazria/Metzora is that it is not the illness we should focus on but the separation, the healing, and the return. When we live in community, we are bound to insult, offend, and worse. Our actions have consequences. But not the consequences of illness per se; our actions impact our community and our place within that community. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the community, to heal, and then to return when we are ready.
My Schechter Boston years were a long time ago, but I remember fondly how supportive the community was (and is: now I’m a Schechter Greater Hartford parent!) during times that I made poor choices or that my actions had consequences that impacted my friends. The gift of the holy community we create at Schechter is that we support those who need a “time out,” we encourage their healing, and we welcome them back. We are so privileged to share in this holy, nurturing, and supportive community!