Hillel’s disciple, Ben Bag Bag commented “turn it [Torah] over and over again, for everything is in it” (Avot 5:25), but even he might have been challenged to extract some edifying homily for today’s society from parashat metzora.
The sidra contains graphic descriptions and treatments of certain ancient plagues, translated as ‘leprosy’. Be it the purification ritual for the leper who has been declared clean, or the process of dealing with houses affected by plague; be it the discharges of men or of women – the text goes into maximum detail, and the relevance for today flees from the mind of the reader as the images strike us forcibly and revoltingly.
But every sidra brings us something new and it is an obligation for us to examine the narrative and to allow it to speak to us today. And of course it does speak – we are reminded that while the rituals around a priest’s examination of leprous spots may seem irrelevant, our attitude to illness and to the sick is not. In Tazria which was read last week, but is often read together with Metzorah, we learned that the victim’s place was outside of the camp, alone and apart. This week we read of the difficult process of return to the land of the living.
And it is difficult.
One of the sacrifices to be brought by the now-healed leper is the asham, the guilt offering. Why a guilt offering? What had the sick person done? Wouldn’t a thanksgiving offering be more appropriate?
There is a rabbinic tradition that the word Metzorah is an acronym for ‘motzi shem ra’ – for gossip, from which sadly comes the inevitable idea that the victim of an illness must be being punished for a sin they have committed. This would then explain the guilt offering as being the atonement brought by the penitent convalescent for the sin which caused their illness.
The idea exists in our tradition, but we should not fall into the trap of taking it any more seriously than a rabbinic homily to explain a curious choice of offering, for if we began to go down the road that illness is a punishment from God for previous bad behaviour, we would soon be in serious theological trouble, having to defend a cruel callous and punitive God. How would we explain children’s illness, or that of people who try hard to live an exemplary life? Equating such things with God’s punishment goes against the grain of our core teachings, even while the midrash remains ‘on the record’.
So why the asham, the guilt offering? Those of us who have either been close to someone who has had a potentially life threatening illness or ourselves survived a long and painful time will know that the feelings on returning to health and to life may be complex and ambivalent. No longer having the support of health professionals quite so frequently, or of a family who have been exhausted by the effects of the illness can be frightening and cause instability and anxiety in the now healthy person. There is a fear that the illness might be hiding and return, or that something else may strike us out of the blue as the illness did.
For some people the humiliations of the illness or the treatment have gnawed at their sense of worth and of identity. They begin to be not themselves, but people whose horizons are diminished, whose interest in life begins to wane, who become institutionalised or self centred. The four walls of the sickroom become the only world of interest, so that the restrictions of the illness begin to impact not only on the physical body, but the emotional, spiritual and intellectual self as well. One may come to hate one’s own weakness, resent the way the body will not perform to order, be angry with oneself for having given in, for being unable to take part in life, for being unable to share the future with loved ones. One questions ones own life. And upon recovery, the questions build – why me? Who now am I? Why have I been spared when others were not? Survivor guilt is a well-known phenomenon that is not restricted to experiencing a violent upheaval in political terms, but also plays out in people who have danced too closely with death and yet come back into life. Depression and anger mix with anxiety often in the recovering patient. And should there be continuing medications or the need to live with high-tech requirements for your body to carry on and your heart to continue beating there is never a time when one can forget or consign the experience to memory. The depths of human pain and human distress are often unacknowledged in the triumphalism of the successful bringing back of the very sick into the land of the living. The very ill person has different horizons from the rest of us, and should we ignore those we may cause great distress to the convalescent.
For society too, the return of the sick person may bring about feelings of vulnerability and guilt. Most people, when they ask the question ‘how are you?’ are not expecting a detailed, or even a truthful, answer. The response ‘I’m fine, how about you?’ is the socially acceptable one. We fear our own vulnerability, and the sick tend to remind us of it, so when we encounter them we tend to feel a little guilty about our own anxiety, about our own health status, about what we meant to do for them if only we had got around to it…
So the bringing of a guilt offering, both by the recently recovered and by the community into which they are re-entering, may be no bad thing, but the truth is we cannot any longer bring such a thing – so we need to be looking for what we can offer in its place. We could bring understanding and some insight, compassion for those who suffer and for ourselves; we could bring awareness of the plight of the ill and of those who care for them; we could bring warmth and love, patience, and the recognition of our own anxiety, and so transform the experience of the sufferer and the convalescent, and just as importantly transform the experience that we ourselves encounter when we encounter illness and vulnerability. Whether it be people who are diagnosed with cancer or with AIDS, whether it be people who have mental fragility and frailty or people with age related illnesses – they need our compassion and our presence in their lives, and we need theirs. So when we read about the unpleasant illnesses in Metzorah let’s remember how seriously the bible took the care of such individuals and of society, both during the illness and after it. It is a model lesson which we might easily overlook in the mess of symptoms described in this sidra, yet as ever the Torah has much to teach us about how to behave towards others.