I was turned away from the hospital the other day on a visit to one of my congregants. Winter-virus had contaminated the ward and non-essential visitors were asked to leave. Sickness can be lonely. Before modernity, illness had purpose. It could cleanse one from sin, sign-post a fault in the soul, lead to a higher spiritual plane. The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Yochanan enters to heal his student, Rabbi Hiyya, he begins with the question: "Are your afflictions beloved to you?" (Berachot 5b).
Imagine going to visit your GP with the flu, and being asked, "Are you enjoying that fever?" Modernity has rendered illness as a malfunction in the body-machine, devoid of intrinsic purpose. Thus, a rabbi can be turned away at the hospital because his visit is "non-essential".
In this week's double-sedarot, we focus on the sickness and healing of tzara'at, a malignant skin disease. The patient must live outside the camp of Israel until the skin heals, and then a beautiful moment ensues. "This shall be the law of the afflicted on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the cohen. The cohen shall go to him outside of the camp" (Leviticus 14:2-3).
But this moment cannot really be the "day of purification" because it will take the patient another week to achieve purity. Ramban transforms the text with a single word: this is the day that he wants to become pure. In that moment, everyone springs into motion; the community is waiting to bring him to the camp's edge, the cohen rushes out to meet him there, healing begins. This is a different kind of healthcare: patient-centred, communal, deeply responsive. Perhaps when rabbis, priests and imams are considered essential visitors, a patient's voice will be as closely monitored as his heartbeat.