Ancient Israelites & Public Health
One tradition that I love about Beth Chai is our Bar and Bat Mitzvah projects. I so enjoy working our students to find a topic relevant to them. Before coming to Beth Chai, I spent many years mentoring B’nai Mitzvah students focused on learning a Torah portion. Some students enjoyed this challenge but many struggled with it. I mentally divided the Torah portions in my mind:
- A-list portions - Portions that lent themselves to a 13-year-old writing a speech: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Joseph and his brothers
- Neutral portions - Portions that, while not the most exciting, had a kernel or two that was ripe for adolescent interpretation: Kosher laws, agricultural rules of gleaning, the detailed descriptions of building the sanctuary in the desert
- And, then, there were the problematic portions. And the most problematic of the problematic: - Tazria and Metzora. The rules concerning menstruation (try making that relevant to a 13-year-old boy!) and the rules about leprosy.
In rabbinical school, all 5th-year rabbinical students give a “senior sermon.” It is a culmination of your five years of training. For my senior sermon, I was assigned Tazria-Metzora, menstruation and leprosy. Now, being a rabbi-in-training rather than an awkward 13-year-old, I took on Tazria-Metzora as a challenge. How could I make it relevant?
Leprosy in the Biblical world was a catch-all phrase for skin disease. When a person contracted leprosy, the ancient Israelites knew enough to quarantine him or her at the edge of the camp to stop the disease from spreading – not unlike the quarantines that we now face during the pandemic.
When the leprosy was cured, he or she was brought back into the camp after undergoing a ritual for inclusion. For my senior sermon, I focused on this ritual. After a set number of days, the priest would go to the edge of the camp to inspect the leper. If the leper had been cured, the priest put a little bit of blood on the leper’s right ear, thumb and toe. The priest himself knew how the leper felt. In the ritual to become a priest, he, too, had a little blood smeared on his ear, thumb and toe. Just to note, all priests were men back in the day.
Now, of course, this ritual of marking with blood is very archaic and foreign to us today. But, the meaning imbued in the ritual is not. According to the later commentators the blood on the ear represented one’s words, the blood on the thumb represented one’s deeds and the blood on the toe represented the path chosen through life.
Today, as we face our own plague and our own quarantine, this ancient ritual is a relevant reminder. I think it is very telling that the priest and leper underwent the same ritual. We will not solve Covid-19 until all members of our society work together. Nobody is exempt from wearing a mask, observing social distancing and making a conscious effort to make safe choices.
The ritual of the ear, thumb and toe – words, deeds and one’s path - also speaks to us today. We need to make sure that through our words and our deeds that we promote good health. And our collective path must be one that prioritizes communal safety and collective precaution.
The ancient Israelites knew about public health. Their cures might be outdated, but their intentionality is not: Work together as a society, accept quarantine when necessary, speak words of healing and act with communal responsibility. Nobody, from the high priest to the leper, or today, from the president to each of us, is exempt.
Stay healthy, and stay safe!