For the week of April 5, 2003 / 3 Nisan 5763
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59
Haftarah: Melachim B / 2 Kings 4:42 - 5:19
You Got To Do Something About It
If the spot on his skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to put the infected person in isolation for seven days (Vayikra / Leviticus 13:4).
As I write this, we are on the brink of what might become the most disastrous epidemic of our day. SARS or "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome" appears to be a deadly form of pneumonia. The region of Canada in which I live has declared this a medical emergency.
Currently the province of Ontario has issued a voluntary quarantine to people that may have come in contact with SARS. A voluntary quarantine means that the government has advised high-risk people to stay at home, without forcing them to do so. According to one news report I heard on the radio, many people were ignoring the directive, since they did not want to miss work. It is possible that if, God forbid, the danger of SARS grows considerably, we might see a mandatory quarantine imposed.
Interestingly the timing of this outbreak coincides with a relevant section of Torah. Traditionally these passages were thought to be referring to leprosy, but scholars believe that the Torah is actually referring to a broader spectrum of infectious skin disease, and not just leprosy. While SARS is not a skin disease, it is infectious. There are some principles we can glean from the Torah that may apply in the current situation.
The Torah's instructions regarding these diseases are helpful in providing us with God's perspective on serious diseases.
First, we see that a careful examination was required. Priests were trained to diagnose such conditions. It was important to make sure that the person actually had the disease. Measures were only taken upon confirmation by the priest.
Second, there was no guilt associated with the illness. Just because someone was struck by such a disease did not imply that they had done anything wrong to deserve it. That doesn't mean that bad behavior never results in sickness. It is that the presence of sickness doesn't automatically imply wrongdoing on the part of the sufferer.
Third, if the person truly has the condition, then drastic measures have to be taken. Sufferers of these diseases had to be isolated, no exceptions. While this would be a great hardship to the individual and their family, the concern for the community took precedence over the freedoms of the individual in such a case.
As I look at the Torah's instructions concerning these things, I am struck by the seriousness with which these diseases were handled. The danger to the community was not to be ignored. While care was to be taken to avoid false diagnosis, once the infection was confirmed, something had to be done even if it meant great inconvenience to the sufferers of the disease.
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