We start from the assumption that every leper will eventually return to the community.
The “יוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ-day of cleansing” is a given. This is a radical idea. That the Torah instructs us to exile the leper during his ailment can seem harsh and maybe even cruel, but it reflects reality. There are always people on the margins of a society, who for one reason or another have been pushed out of the community. Students of Parshat Metzora have analogized the leper to people with illnesses and those who carry with them shame for any number of reasons. We hear about the plight of the Metzora, and we recognize it in our modern world. But exile is not the end of the story. Parshat Metzora is a detailed manual for the person’s return. And the key to this process is: everyone gets to return.
How many of the social stigmas of today have a formula for bringing people back into society? How do we make that reintegration a given? Whose job is this reintegration and how would it work?
The Torah offers a multi-step process. When the leper’s period of isolation and distance from the community has ended, a stigma remains that must be acknowledged and cleared away. The first stage (Vayikra 14:3-7) addresses this phenomenon through a ritual involving two birds. The first bird is sacrificed, and its blood becomes an agent of ritual cleansing. The second bird is set free. As metaphors, these birds might emphasize a process of letting go needed to reenter community. Some things will need to die, others may need to be set free.
The return is gradual. After the initial cleansing, the person experiences a period of partial reintegration (Vayikra 14:8-9), in which they are a part of the community, but not ready to fully reenter their former life. A process of bathing, shaving and waiting adds structure and ritual to bring the person back in. During this time, they have reentered the camp, but not their own tent. The Torah seems to tell us that one cannot expect to immediately return to life as it was—but with time, and patience, homecoming can happen.
After this long process, the person has fully reengaged their former life. They are home. They live again in their own tent. But the Torah doesn’t stop here. There is an additional, final stage where the person moves beyond their former status, to become holier than they were before the the leprosy. The final stage (Leviticus 14:13-18) involves anointing with blood and oil. The priest sprinkles blood toward the sanctuary as a dedicatory act which makes the blood holy. He then uses that blood to sanctify the person, who was purified and reintegrated, and is now elevated through the same process used to invest the priests. Being anointed by a priest is a truly remarkable honor that most Israelites never achieve. The entire process, from start to finish, is performed by the priest and is done, the text tells us, “before God.”
This is our mandate. This is the bar set for us by Parshat Metzora. When someone has been exiled from the community—because of illness, because of shame—they must be brought back not only to their former status, but to an even holier and more sacred place. When we, as modern people, read the plight of the Metzora and see those on the margins of our own community—those with AIDS, those who struggle with addiction, those who have been incarcerated, those who have experienced shame for any number of reasons—it is our obligation to build a concrete process, a holy process, to honor these same individuals.
(These ideas are built upon the teachings of Rabbinical School of Hebrew College Professor Rabbi Nehemia Polen.)
Rabbi Avi Killip serves as VP of strategy and programs and director of Project Zug at Hadar. She was ordained from Hebrew College’s pluralistic rabbinical school in Boston. She was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and holds a bachelor’s and master’s from Brandeis University in Jewish studies and women and gender studies. She serves on the advisory board of ShmaNOW and the Jewish Studio Project.
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