“This shall be the ritual for the metzora at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp” Leviticus 14:2-3


Our sages were attracted to the notion that the the skin disease known as tzara’at was a punishment for a specific sin or moral failing, particularly malicious speech. Yet this idea is not present in the biblical text where no reason for the illness can be discerned.

Instead of considering the meaning of the illness or the guilt of an afflicted individual, the Torah focuses on proper diagnosis and treatment by a qualified professional — the priest.

If tzara’at is confirmed, the metzora (the person afflicted with tzara’at) must move out of the camp (presumably lest they infect others).

The priest visits the metzora every seven days to track the progress of their condition, and once he has ascertained that the tzara’at has definitely ended, the priest supports the metzora through several ritual steps back into normal life.

Rabbi Maurice D. Harris (an American Reconstructionist rabbi) undertakes an interesting thought experiment. He asks that we consider present-day criminals as contemporary analogues to the metzora. Prison is how we exclude anti-social types from society.

But, he observes, the prison system isn’t great at “healing” criminals. Recidivism is high, perhaps because prisons are total institutions, often designed more for punishment than rehabilitation.

In his thought experiment, Rabbi Harris observes the holistic nature of the role the priest plays in attending to the metzora. Priestly visits mean the metzora still feels part of society even while excluded. Once physically healed, the metzora and the priest perform a multi-stage ritual which culminates in offering sacrifices at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

This event, at the heart of the camp, purges the former metzora of the last vestiges of the tzara’at taint, marking their full rehabilitation and reminding others that a line must be drawn under the episode and the person’s prior status restored.

Which society is more progressive in its treatment of people who need to be temporarily excluded? asks Rabbi Harris. Ours or our ancestors?


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