II Kings 7:3–20
When we consider the social status of the outsider — and Jews have had plenty of reasons to think about that over the years — the leper is a good starting point. Throughout history, lepers have been demonized, quarantined and often sent out of society to live in leper colonies. It’s hard to fathom a more extreme version of the outcast.
Our two Torah portions this week are bridged by a discussion of leprosy. We first meet the leper in a miserable state: clothes torn, head shaven, calling out the words of his disgrace: “Impure! Impure!” And our first instruction is to exile him: “Being impure he shall sit alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).
He sits alone. It’s very stark, very sad language.
Yet it doesn’t last long. For the Torah launches right into a detailed treatment procedure. The leper is to be purified through a series of mysterious priestly rituals. But what’s really interesting is that even before he is fully “cured,” as soon as he undergoes the ritual and bathes, we read: “… After that, he shall enter the camp” (Lev. 14:8).
No leper colony; not even a week of exile. Precautionary measures are still taken, but he comes back into the camp, among his people.
That’s the paradigm. That’s how the Lord wants us to deal with the leper. Help him. And bring him back in.
With this in mind, we can better understand a strange passage in the Talmud in which the rabbis try to figure out when the Messiah will come:
“Rabbi Joshua ben Levi came upon Elijah (the prophet) … He asked, ‘When will the Messiah come?’
“Elijah replied, ‘Go ask him yourself.’
“ ‘Where does he sit?’
“ ‘At the city gate.’
“ ‘How will I recognize him?’
“ ‘He sits among the poor lepers. They all untie their bandages all at once when they need to rebandage themselves. But he unties and rebandages in parts, one by one, thinking, maybe I’ll suddenly be needed, and I want to be ready at any minute.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhed-rin 98a)
The answer to the question of when the Messiah will come, in this version, is: He’s already here! But we don’t notice him. In fact, he’s a total outcast. A leper.
At this point, we ought to make it clear that none of these stories are really about leprosy, at least not as we know it today. Most people now think that the Hebrew word tzaraat referred to some other kind of skin disease. In fact, the classical commentators generally understand that — although it had a physical manifestation — this was a spiritual malady.
If that’s true, it lends an entirely different read to these stories. The one who sits alone outside the camp is suffering spiritually. When we go out to heal him, we are tending not just to his body but to his aching soul. Maybe that’s why he’s brought back in a week before he is fully cured — because, in a sense, bringing him back into the camp is the cure.
But time passes, society hardens, and we begin to forget to bring people in. We forget those who are suffering spiritually. They are left to make their own way back into the community.
And then, eventually, they give up. They sit outside, nursing their wounds, waiting. Waiting for something to change.
Meanwhile, there we are, just through the city gate, also waiting. Waiting for the redemption. Waiting for the Messiah to come save us when he’s right there behind the wall. We wait for him on one side while he waits for us on the other.
But that passive waiting was not the approach recommended by the Torah with respect to the leper. Instead, we were to actively initiate the process of reentry: “The priest shall go outside the camp” (Lev. 14:3).
The redeemer doesn’t come to us. We go out to him. We go out to the sick, the suffering — outcasts of all kinds. We comfort them, cleanse them, heal them. And we bring them back into the camp, in through the gates, back into the community.
When we remember how to do that, our redemption is at hand. Indeed, maybe that is our redemption.
The leper, it turns out, is the one who can save us all.
Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at www.parshanut.com