Light from the Sidra

Tazria/Metzora ('She will conceive'/'Leper')

Torah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33. Haftarah: 2 Kings 7:3-20

The Living Dead

One of the scariest experiences I ever had occurred late one night in 1971. I was returning home when I saw some members of a local gang on the street corner. I knew them pretty well and they told me with great solemnity that they’d seen ‘a monster’. I laughed but, as we talked, one of the guys whispered sharply, ‘He’s here!’ Everyone went quite as a tall, dark figure in a long black coat walked slowly up the street. As the figure came closer, in the streetlight I could make out a pale, hideous face. And he was looking directly at me! My legs turned to jelly when one of the gang pointed to me and told him, ‘Hey, he said you’re ugly’! The figure stopped, looked at me and began walking slowly toward me. Terrified doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt but, as the monster reached me, he peeled back a life-like latex mask. It was another member of the gang. Boy, was I relieved!

Ugliness both fascinates and repels us. Movie makers compete with each other to see who can create the most hideous monsters and there are now reality TV shows that entertain the masses by revealing the most stomach-turning skin problems imaginable. That, as they say, is entertainment.

Leprosy in ancient Israel was a skin problem so serious that it resulted in sufferers being quarantined from the rest of the community. Leprosy was a living death. If you were a leper, you were cut off from the congregation of Israel until you were healed, and in the history of Israel recorded in the Tanakh, few people were ever healed. Not even the four lepers who brought good news to Samaria in the Haftarah were healed. One of the few exceptions was actually an enemy of Israel, Naaman the commander-in-chief of Syria’s army, whose story is recounted in 2 Kings 5.

Leprosy, as defined in Leviticus 13, was not necessarily what we know today as Hansen’s Disease, an infection which attacks the skin and nerves of sufferers resulting in the loss of fingers and toes. Nevertheless, if someone in ancient Israel broke out in blotches they had to be examined and if the infection turned out to be ‘leprosy’ the sufferer was put out of the camp of Israel, away from contact with family, friends, society and, worst of all, God. Lepers were ritually unclean and had to announce the fact so that others could give them a wide berth.

But why should people with unsightly skin problems be excluded from society at large and, more importantly, why should they not be able to worship God before they are cured? There was obviously more to the laws of leprosy than met the eye. The unsightly physical conditions afflicting humanity are a testimony to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the world. This is one of the great objections of atheism. If God exists, and if he is good, why is there suffering in the world?

It’s a good question but, as we saw in Genesis 3, the perfect world that God brought into being was defaced by the rebellion of the first man. Adam’s disobedience affected not only him but also the entire created order.

If dad ignores the instructions for a new television or some household appliance, and the appliance fails to work, the entire family suffers. When Adam and Eve believed they were smart enough to know right from wrong without God’s help, they threw the entire creation out of whack. The result was thorns, thistles, painful childbirth and a whole host of other evils, including leprosy. Adam and Eve were assured that one day the ‘seed of the woman’ would undo the evil results the serpent had brought on the human race but at the time of Moses, Israel was living between the promise and the fulfilment. And the results of sin were with them still. It is interesting, then, that in the writings of the B’rit Hadashah, the first detailed healing performed by Yeshua the Messiah is the healing of a leper (Gospel of Matthew 8:1-5)

The first thing a leper had to do when he or she was healed was to present themselves to the priests to be examined and certified clean. When pronounced clean, they were free to approach God and worship him. Although leprosy was not a moral or ethical issue, when the leper was cleansed a sin offering and guilt offering had to be presented to God (Lv. 14:10ff). Leprosy came into the world as a result of Adam’s sin so, even though the condition was not a result of sin on the part of the sufferer, atonement had to be made.

When Yeshua was asked if he was the Messiah, he pointed to the fact that ‘the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.’ As the ‘seed of the woman,’ he was undoing the damage done by the serpent in Gan Eden. But the disobedience of Adam had internal consequences as well as external effects. Before Adam was tempted, it seems, his inclination was only toward good but since he sinned his descendants have inherited not only the yetzer ha tov but also the yetzer ha ra. And, just as no one can by an effort of the will cleanse themselves from leprosy, no amount of effort on our part can fully overcome the evil inclination. We are dependent on the mercy of HaShem revealed in the Messiah.

After cleansing hundreds of lepers, Yeshua offered himself as a guilt offering, in accordance with the words of the prophet: ‘Yet it was the will of HaShem to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of HaShem shall prosper in his hand’ (Is. 53:10).

Here is hope, not so much for a physical illness so much as spiritual death.

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