Sidra Metzora (Leviticus 14-15)
We don’t often read the beginning of our Sidra. It seems remote, distasteful even, to read these accounts of curious skin diseases which the High Priest was supposed to examine.
But the Torah deals with real life in all its aspects, and such skin afflictions were the reality in biblical times. We don’t know from the Torah whether people believed that the Priest could cure people. Later accounts of prophets such as Elisha, and of course Jesus later still, tell us that they were believed to be healers. No such claims are made here - rather, the role of the Priest was to decide who was ‘clean’and ‘unclean’for ritual purposes. This might have been related to whether they were infectious or not - many have claimed that our Sidra is an early description of of quarantine - but given that this week’s Sidra and last are more concerned with whether people were fit to approach God’s altar, this is more likely to be what it was all about.
In any case, we know now that the Priest could not cure diseases. Up till relatively recently in human history, people relied on cures they thought worked, without investigating how or whether they really did. It’s no wonder that most of them offered no greater chance of recovery than leaving well alone. It is only in the last century or two that a scientific approach has allowed humanity to make real progress in treating diseases. Painstaking investigation led to increased understanding of why diseases happened. Treatments were investigated, discovered and carefully tested to see if they were effective. Chance findings and known remedies such as digoxin were meticulously checked to see if and how they were effective.
Judaism has welcomed these developments. When the question was asked in the Talmud: ‘If illness comes from God, do human beings have the right to treat it?’the answer was a resounding ‘Yes - human beings have a duty to heal.’ Not only was it a duty, but the Talmud sets out ways of making sure that a treatment really was effective - one could argue that the earliest medical trials were described there. When it was stated how many bones there were in the human body, one of the rabbis challenged this and checked by counting the bones in a corpse! Judaism teaches that God has created us as partners in creation, to work for a better world, and we are obligated to use our powers of reason for the benefit of humanity. One of the most beautiful expressions of this was by Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine. When asked if he would patent it, he is said to have replied, ‘Would you patent the sun?’ It is no wonder that there have been so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners in medicine. There is nothing more in keeping with Judaism than our own National Health Service, which was founded on the principle that everyone should be able to have access to health care without having to worry about whether they could afford it or not.
Yet for all our progress in scientific medicine, and the amazing advances in the western world which mean that infectious diseases are rarely fatal, many forms of cancer are treatable and all sorts of suffering can be alleviated if not cured, the fruits of scientific medicine are not available to much of the world’s population. Quite apart from the drugs costing hundreds of pounds which would be an unbelievable luxury, millions of people continue to die needlessly across the globe because simple remedies are not available. Infected drinking water is a major cause of death. Vaccines for diseases such as polio, which are cheap and effective, do not reach the people they could benefit. Malaria is easily preventable but preventative measures do not reach those who need them. The loss of so many precious lives which could be saved is a scandal.
In this country, we take our health care for granted, to the extent that many begrudge the increase in income tax which would sustain the NHS, forgetting how precious the principle of free treatment for those in need is. Here, we are fortunate that the days when all that could be done about disease was for Priests to check someone’s symptoms and exclude them from the camp. Judaism teaches that we should use our abilities to learn about disease and its treatment, and to make the fruits of our knowledge available to all who need it. Let us work for a time when all will be able to benefit from medical science and none will die needlessly when their lives could have been saved. Then we will be able to say with true conviction the daily prayer ‘Blessed are You, Eternal One, who heals the sick.’