“Priests as Bridges for Community: Celebrating Our Courageous Healers”
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15
“It is forbidden for a Jew to live in a town without a physician.” (Jerusalem Talmud, BK 46A)
It was recently announced on Israel-English news (ILTV) that Israeli scientists have created a technology that eliminates the need for insect repellent. That would have been welcome news this winter in Brazil where the spreading Zika virus concerned the passengers of the cruise ship on which I served most recently as Guest Rabbi. However, I would defy any disease-bearing mosquito to have come close to any passenger, dripping with sunblock and extra-strength Deet, who emerged from our bus tours. It would have been a fatal journey for the mosquito!
On board, every precaution was taken. Passengers were reminded daily to wash their hands frequently; disinfectant soap machines were stationed outside all public areas; and attendants with piles of hot towels awaited us outside the ship at every port before we could even touch the ship’s spotless gangway railing on reboarding. In addition, in order to undertake the voyage, passengers had individual responsibility to be vaccinated for yellow fever (Brazil won’t let you in otherwise), as well as Hepatitis A, tetanus, and polio (there has been a resurgence in that part of the world). We took anti-malaria pills every day just prior to and for a week after the trip. The ship provided an infirmary staffed with two nurses and a doctor. We were all protected-plus, both as individuals and as an onboard community for 47 days.
I couldn’t help thinking of Parshat Metzora, both to marvel at the wisdom of the precautions taken by our ancient Jewish religious tradition not only to isolate — i.e., quarantine outside the community — a person afflicted by an infectious disease, but also the concern shown by the priests, the biblical healers, in attempting to identify when the contagious period had passed, and when the infected person had healed sufficiently to return to the community without risk to its members. And without social rejection on their return.
This passage clearly identifies the dual concern in our tradition, both for the community and for the individual. A daily effort is made by the healers — the priest, dangerously exposing himself to infection — to go outside the community each day to examine that person, and with the medical knowledge to know when that person was healed. Simply stated, the priest builds a bridge between the needs of the community and the dignity of the person. Only then can the community be whole.
Our thoughts fly to the brave doctors and nurses of our own time who have had to deal in recent years with AIDS, Ebola, and now the Zika virus. Some of them got sick themselves. Every day they attended patients; they faced personal danger. Yet they selflessly continued to treat them.
As well as contagious people, Parshat Metzora addresses inanimate objects. (Most years it is combined with Parshat Tazria, so that the two portions combined go into more detail, but in 2016, the Torah portion is only Metzora.) In particular, Metzora deals with infected buildings. Mold and fungus must be removed, and, if the buildings cannot be restored to health, they must be demolished. As if in illustration of this parsha, almost everywhere I went in Brazil, there were beautiful old buildings in disrepair, covered with black mold and moss, a health risk in themselves. The various communities did not have the money to restore them. One cannot help thinking of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles, where gas leaks have affected the air inside the homes of the residents.
Scary, right? Understandably, most kids approaching bar- or bat-mitzvah dread getting this portion. My granddaughter will ascend to the Torah for her bat-mitzvah in mid-April, just before Passover, and this is the portion she will read and comment on with great respect for the healers of our tradition in their ancient, priestly wisdom. It is my joy and honor to have studied it with her. And that is how we learned together that the reason a town where a Jew lives must have a doctor is because our bodies do not belong to us; they belong to God, and that is why we must take care of them. We also learned that even one of the scariest portions in the Torah can be put into a positive framework — and that this is an essential element in understanding the ritual purity code.