The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be purified. (Vayikra 14:1,2)
He is scourged with a taint,
flagrant as a dark design
tattooed on pallid skin;
neighbors feel cleaner
when he is cast out
But the priest himself
who decreed the exile,
sets forth in all his purity
to restore the outcast,
to touch the untouchable
and anoint him with oil,
as he would a king, blessed
with God-sent grace.
And we too
would-be kingdom of priests
cast out our lepers,
our lonely pariahs,
but withhold our embrace
and refrain from bringing them home.
The description of the treatment of the leper by the priest is noteworthy for its details, and particularly the hands-on approach mandated for the priest, who himself goes outside the camp to the leper, and in the later stages of purification, anoints the leper with oil.
In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen describes how people who have been sick often feel small, broken and vulnerable. She describes how she herself had an ileostomy at the age of 29, which meant that most of her intestine was removed surgically, and she had an “ingeniously designed plastic appliance” fitted which initially was changed for her every few days by nurse specialists called enterostomal therapists. At this point Dr Remen felt disfigured and excluded. She describes how these white-coated professionals would enter her room, put on an apron, masks and gloves and remove and replace the appliance. Then they would strip off all the protective gear and meticulously wash their hands. She says, “This elaborate ritual made things harder for me. I felt shamed.” She continues that one day a woman about her age entered the room to perform this task. It was late in the day, and she had no white coat, but was elegantly dressed. “In a friendly way, she asked if I was ready to have my appliance changed. When I nodded, she pulled back the covers, produced a new appliance and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves. I remember watching her hands. She had washed them before she touched me. They were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her rings were gold.
“I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds and gave me hope…”
In her commentary on Parashat Metsora entitled Leper as Other, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/metzora_ajws.shtml Lydia Bloom Medwin observes “In the biblical narrative, a leper was considered the ultimate “other,” distinguishable by the white, scaly skin that was prone to painful peeling and oozing. While leprosy does not manifest in our society in the same way, the notion of “other” manifests fully.” She also notes that just prior to giving the Children of Israel the Torah, God tells Moses to say to them, “…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. She submits that in the context of Parashot Tazria and Metsora, “this designation suggests that each of us has the honor and responsibility of serving God by serving our fellow human beings.”
The list of the “other” is long and varied, and the verb to “other” means to exclude a person or a group of people that are, in some way, seen as different from the norm.
A painful example of this is described by Professor William Kolbrener in his book, “Open Minded Torah” (and excerpted at this link http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/Making_Exceptions.html?site=full) and concerns his son Shmuel, who has Down syndrome and was therefore refused entry to various schools. The principal of one averred that accepting Shmuel would give the school a bad name. Professor Kolbrener notes that the Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Vayikra 19:18) and a few verses later, “You shall love the stranger.” (Vayikra 19:34) He says, “Love the one with whom you identify, as well as the one who seems different from you. Rashi, the eleventh-century commentator who guides generations through difficult passages, writes that the Torah assumes one may come to hate the stranger because he has a “defect.” His deficiency, whatever it may be, arouses a desire to afflict him, or at least distance him.
“But the verse continues: “You yourself were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” You see him as different, but he is just like you. The stranger’s so-called defect, Rashi writes, is your own. That characteristic which we are unable to acknowledge – too painful or unpleasant – we externalize in a hatred for others. We were once slaves in Egypt, “strangers in a strange land,” immersed in idolatry. So, we look at the stranger and project upon him that which we fear might be most true about ourselves. But we fear it – this is the Torah’s insight – because it is true. We instinctively hate the other for reminding us of the “defect” which is our own.”
He continues, “In the end, we may have more in common with children of difference, like Shmuel, than we are willing to admit…The proximity of children with Down Syndrome, or exceptional children of any kind, make us uneasy about the ways in which we may also be merely ordinary, less than competent, imperfect. How else to explain a school – or a community – that wants to project an image of perfection in order to maintain its good name?
“But that image is a communal fantasy, not the Torah’s ideal. Keeping special children out of the “mainstream” may be, in many cases, the right thing. But sometimes, it is as much about parents… who nurture images of themselves helping them to forget what they do not want to know…”
He concludes, “The stranger we try to flee almost always has an uncannily familiar face. But becoming more tolerant to that which is more singular in ourselves – acknowledging the stranger within – makes it easier to be tolerant of the exceptional in others.”