וְהַצָּר֜וּעַ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֣וֹ הַנֶּ֗גַע בְּגָדָ֞יו יִהְי֤וּ פְרֻמִים֙ וְרֹאשׁוֹ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה פָר֔וּעַ וְעַל־שָׂפָ֖ם יַעְטֶ֑ה וְטָמֵ֥א ׀ טָמֵ֖א יִקְרָֽא׃
As for the person with a leprous affection: the clothes shall be rent, thehead shall be left bare,*and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, “Impure! Impure!” (Leviticus 13:45)
And some say that Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her [a woman who was afflicted with an ailment] Reveal this fact to your friends, in order that they will pray for mercy for you, as it is taught in a baraita discussing the verse: “And the leper in whom the mark is, his clothes shall be ripped and the hair of his head shall grow long and he will put a covering upon his upper lip and will cry: Impure, impure” (Leviticus 13:45). The leper publicizes the fact that he is ritually impure, as he must announce his pain to the masses, and then the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 66a)
The Talmud advises the woman to share her pain openly so that others will be moved to compassion. The proof text is a verse from this week’s Torah portion teaching that a leper must declare their impurity.
It is interesting to note that elsewhere the Talmud teaches that the reason for the public announcement is so that others will avoid them so as not to contract impurity.
In a radically different approach, the passage from Niddah above teaches that the public announcement of impurity is not meant to create distance between the afflicted and the healthy, but to highlight the relationship they have and to inspire others to pray on behalf of the unwell.
This powerful idea focuses on our interdependency. Biblical leprosy is a spiritual affliction - one that is said to come as a result of gossip. One source teaches that as gossip can lead to a husband and wife separating, so too must the gossip separate from the camp. By expecting the community to pray for mercy, perhaps there is a hint that the community bears some of the responsibility. It is as if we are being asked: How can a community tolerate gossips?
The idea of interdependence can also extend to a responsibility that the community had towards healing the afflicted. Some scholars, like Ralbag, understand biblical leprosy as a medical ailment (he is in the minority, as most consider it a spiritual affliction) and as such, the community is responsible to marshal its power to help the afflicted individual.
There is something else very powerful here. The Rabbis have painted a very optimistic picture of how people would react if they knew the troubles that others were experiencing. Could it be that according to the Rabbis selfishness is a factor of ignorance and once the veil is lifted a natural desire to help will emerge and take over?
Pesach (coming soon!) offers a radical example of this idea. The Rabbis teach the following (Mishna Pesachim 10:5)
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים.
In every generation, each person is obligated to view themself as if they went out from Egypt.
Dr. Rona Novick suggests that this teaching goes beyond empathy. She argues that compassion comes not from understanding the plight of others but by “the ability to see the world as another does, to put oneself in their shoes.” She gos on to say that the obligation “to see ourselves as slaves and as redeemed is to inculcate in us a prominent and lasting empathy for others. Freed from slavery, we are now masters, and the prescription of the Haggadah l’irot et atzmo (to view themself), cautions us to be vigilant in our concern for others…”
The obligation to give voice to challenges and difficulty reminds us of our interdependence and our responsibility to each other’s spiritual and physical condition. We learn a sense of radical empathy and how ritual can shape our lives and direct our actions.
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of