Israel, like many countries around the world, is under national lockdown and quarantine orders to contain and mitigate COVID-19. On the sparsely populated, social-distancing streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the virtually packed sidewalks of Zoom, one of the most commonly heard words is bidud — the modern Hebrew word for quarantine. It shares a common word from the Book of Leviticus that may resonate today with Israelis.
Leviticus, which so often seems archaic to our modern sensibilities, may be precisely what we need to regain our equilibrium in a world turned upside down. In particular, this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, with its handling of contagious disease, feels rather prescient in the midst of a pandemic wreaking havoc in our backyards, across the United States and around the globe. Our biblical ancestors have something to teach us.
Let’s listen to the text: “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch … appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure” (Leviticus13:2-3).
We take note that the priest in biblical times was both the religious and medical authority (Jewish mothers lobbied hard to change that). As we read in the Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, “The biblical mind saw the connection between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of illness and recovery (perhaps more clearly than we see it today).”
The 19th-century Chasidic master known as the Sefat Emet, through a linguistic sleight of hand, helps us connect the physical and the spiritual dimensions of a human being. He seizes upon the homonym between the Hebrew words “or (עור),” meaning skin, and “or (אור),” meaning light. In this way, the text is no longer limited to the physical illness of a skin disease, but extended to a spiritual illness that dims a person’s inner light.
In reading the verse, “when the priest saw it” referring to the contagious disease, the grammar also allows us to read it as, “when the priest saw him.” In other words, the rabbis understand that the concern of the priests is not solely focused on the physical affliction, but also to care for the whole person.
What was their state of mind? How were they dealing with fear, their own mortality, their family and possibly being shamed or ostracized by the community? The priest’s responsibility as a healer was to consider both the body and the spirit.
The text continues, “As for the one bearing tzaraʿat (the contagious disease), his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘tamei, tamei’ — ‘impure, impure.’ He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. As long as he is impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45-46).
At first blush, this seems a harsh way to treat someone already suffering from a scary, life-threatening disease. Yet, because the afflicted one feels seen by the priest as a whole human being, he trusts the diagnosis and accepts the measure that needs to be taken, for his own welfare and for the welfare of his family and the greater community.
And what is that measure — “badad yeisheiv michutz la’machanei moshavo — he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Here we have the Hebrew word badad, to be set apart and isolated, in order to contain the spread of a disease. Although the practice of quarantine as we know it today wouldn’t begin until the 14th century in Italy, the ancient Israelites were on to something thousands of years earlier.
It makes me wonder. What if the contagion didn’t manifest itself in such an obvious way as a skin disease? What if the priest knew that there was a possibly fatal, contagious disease — that for some, upon examination, there were outward signs of fever, dry cough, shortness of breath and exhaustion?
And others who could be carriers of the disease, with no signs at all, and no way of testing to know one way or the other. What would the priest, as the religious and medical authority, do? I can imagine, for the sake of saving lives, for which there is no greater mitzvah in Judaism, even with great collateral damage to the greater community, that the priest might adapt his directive and say to all, “badad yeisheiv b’veitecha — dwell apart in your home.”
Today in Israel, they’ve adapted the biblical word badad, apart/isolate to bidud, quarantine. Nothing archaic about that. JN
John A. Linder is the senior rabbi at Temple Solel.