Photo Credit: United Hatzalah
It’s fascinating and even a little eerie, that the Torah, written more than 3,300 years ago, already prescribes ideas of quarantine, isolation, contagion and social distancing millennia before the modern world figured it out for itself.
This week’s Torah reading of Tazria-Metzora deals with the spiritual-physical malady known as Tzaraat. It was an unusual skin condition that was the result of a spiritual-ethical failing, most commonly attributed to gossiping, but could also be caused by a host of other shortcomings. Tzaraat should not be confused with leprosy, an incorrect translation that is often used.
The Torah further details the treatment protocol of someone infected with Tzaraat. The afflicted person needed to be seen by a Kohen who would determine if it was indeed Tzaraat. If the Kohen confirmed that it was Tzaraat, the patient needed to leave their house, leave the entire encampment of Israel and remain in isolation until the Tzaraat was gone. The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 13:2 delves deeper into the disease and specifically those tasked with intervention, the Kohens.
According to the Meshech Chochma, quoting Talmudic sources, Tzaraat was highly contagious. It may be that it was not necessarily from the physical transmission, but rather because the infected person suffered from a defect of the spirit, an ethical virus, that could easily be transmitted to someone with a weak spiritual immune system or other underlying spiritual maladies. That is one of the reasons the infected person would have to call out “impure, impure,” so people would know to avoid him and practice social distancing from him.
Because of the danger of the disease, and its possibility to easily infect others, one group from within Israel, the Kohens, who had already been separated and sanctified from within the rest of the people of Israel, were tasked with treating Tzaraat. The Kohens were designated to be the first responders, the doctors, and nurses who would check, diagnose, treat and tend to these spiritually afflicted people, even though the job took them out of their normal working environment of the Tabernacle. The Meshech Chochma states that the special designation of the Kohens gave them unique protection against the corrosive danger of the spiritual virus at the heart of Tzaraat.
The Kohen’s ancient role in Israel was to facilitate a Jew’s connection with God in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple in Jerusalem. They braved an encounter with the dangerous virus of Tzaraat out of faith. The Kohen’s mission of being the spiritual physician of the people in turn provided him with protection against the spiritual virus.
May we all achieve and maintain spiritual and physical health and avoid viral infections of any sort.
*Dedicated to the memory of all Holocaust survivors, including my grandparents, Jakob and Ita Spitz z”l.