Light from the Sidra

Tazria/Metzora ('Conceived/Leper') 24 April 2015. 69th Iyar 5775

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Living Dead

The last few years has witnessed a rash of movies about zombies, beings who can best be described as the ‘living dead’. The social commentator John W Whitehouse theorises that ‘These films are more than a frightening foray into cinema. They express our repressed fears and expose us to the dark side of human nature—something so destructive that it cannot be controlled. And once it is unleashed, all hell breaks loose.’

In ancient Israel, there was a class of people who were so ‘dangerous’ and potentially destructive to the nation’s holiness that they had to be excluded from normal society. Today, we don’t ostracise sufferers from eczema, psoriasis, ringworm, leucoderma or lesions caused by boils and burns, but in ancient Israel some skin diseases (translated in English versions of the Bible as ‘leprosy’) were so serious that they required the sufferer to be expelled from the community and thus from the temple, the house of God. If you suffered from leprosy, you were one of the living dead. You were cut off from contact with the people of God and from fellowship with God himself.

The priests served not only as the peoples’ representatives before God but also as community health inspectors, and it was part of their duties to examine skin diseases and to distinguish ‘leprosy’ from simple rashes and the like.

In Parasha Tazria, ritual ‘uncleanness’ is not to be confused with personal sin. Nevertheless, in the Torah, disease and sin were linked in the sense that they were a reminder that death is the result of sin (see Genesis 3) and any form of disease was an advance warning of death and could mark its imminence. The leper therefore was excluded from the house of God until he (or she) was certified ‘clean’.

In the Haftarah, a group of begging lepers from Israel become the bearers of good news to Samaria. Forbidden as they were by the laws pertaining to leprosy to enter, they begged in the gate of the city but no one had any food to share. Whatever the men do, they are going to die. So in what might be a futile act they decide to go to the Arameans whose leprosy laws, if they had any at all, would not be as stringent as those of Israel. Who knew, perhaps the Aramean soldiers would be kind enough to spare a crust or two. On the other hand, the Arameans might kill them but as they were going to starve to death anyway the lepers had everything to gain and nothing to lose. However, when they arrived at the enemy camp they found it deserted with food everywhere. Samaria was saved.

The choice of Haftarah is interesting because the lepers who brought salvation to Samaria were not healed; even though they saved the city they remained outcasts. In the Tanakh, the only record of a leper being healed is found in 2 Kings 5. That leper was Naaman: an enemy of the Jewish people who never presented himself to the priest for cleansing and remained Torah unobservant, having to bow the knee to the pagan god Rimmon whenever he accompanied his king to the temple of Hadad Rimmon, the Syrian equivalent of Baal.

The only other recorded incidents of lepers being cleansed anywhere, are in the period of the second temple, when Jesus healed lepers. He healed them not merely to reintegrate them into Jewish society but also that they might also be restored to fellowship with God by being able to worship at the temple. He instructed the lepers he healed to follow the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 so they could once again partake in the worship of God.

The rituals prescribed in Vayikra 14 were a recognition that healing had already taken place. In the Gospel of Luke 17:11–19, Jesus instructed ten lepers to present themselves to a priest for cleansing before they had actually been healed. In so doing, he was calling them to exercise faith and, as the men believed, they were healed en route to Jerusalem.

There’s a sense in which we are all lepers, all living dead. There are billions of people today who are physically alive but spiritually dead, cut off from God and excluded from his kingdom. The Levitical priests couldn’t cure leprosy; they could only diagnose it. Rabbis, priests and clergymen today might be able to diagnose that we are suffering from a spiritual malady but they can’t cure it. Only God can do that. The cleansing rituals of Leviticus were lengthy, significant and public and amounted to the celebration of new life as the person was restored from virtual death to the land of the living and to communion with God.

The miraculous healing of lepers by Jesus, as well as being acts of mercy, were symbols in the physical realm of what he had come to accomplish spiritually. As the Messiah, Jesus came to restore Israel and the nations to God by taking upon himself our moral contamination and spiritual uncleanness so we could be declared clean and restored to fellowship with God.

Naaman was cleansed by dipping in the muddy Jordan River seven times. He would have rather bathed in one of the crystal clear streams of Syria but God said he had to wash in the muddy Jordan. To dip seven times in the Jordan was simple but for a proud patriotic Aramean like Naaman, it was also one of the hardest things he had done in his entire life. It was so humiliating. For the chief Syrian commander to go to the land of his enemies to seek the help of a Jewish holy man was bad enough, but to bathe in the waters of Israel’s major water source was a step too far. But when he obeyed he discovered that the God of Israel was greater than Hadad Rimmon.

How ironic, then, that so many Jewish people find it hard to believe in their own Messiah, even though the evidence for Jesus is overwhelmingly compelling. He alone can purify your spiritual leprosy, cleanse your conscience and forgive your sins and restore you to fellowship with your God. What keeps you from trusting him?

Pride: ‘I know Jesus was Jewish but Jews don’t believe in him’?

Fear: ‘What will my family say?’

Stubbornness: ‘I know all the arguments but I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew’?

If you are Jewish and reject the Messiah, make no mistake: Naaman the Syrian will rise up at the resurrection of the dead and condemn you for your unbelief. But if you believe you will find peace of mind and a new heart. What do you have to lose?

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