This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora, talks a great deal about sickness, in particular the affliction of tzara’at – leprosy. The ancients saw illness as a symptom of some inner turmoil or outright sin and sought rituals of purification that would bring forth both spiritual and physical healing. Although I do not agree that illness is caused by human behavior, I do appreciate the teachings of our tradition on how to treat those who are sick. For the rabbis of old, “visiting the sick,” bikur cholim, is a form of “walking in G-d’s ways” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a), and a visitor to the sick “takes away 1/60th of the afflicted person’s illness with every visit” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 30b).
In the Torah, the person afflicted with tzara’at was separated from the community. It was, sadly, necessary. Nevertheless, the priests could not ignore those who were ill, even with contagious diseases, but needed to go out to them. The ritual of purification was similar to that of the ordination of priests. When a person was healed enough to no longer be a risk to their community, they were welcomed back. There was no permanent stigma. The disease did not affect their inherent value and humanity.
I’ve been working on a new song for the past couple of weeks. It is a new Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing. The Mi Shebeirach prayers that exist now are said by the community for the sick person. “Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah.” I felt that there was a space here for a prayer that could be said by the sick persons themselves or by the primary caregivers. The needs of these two are not the same as those of every other friend and loved one of the sick person. These voices are so often silenced by both physical and emotional pain. “Eternal G-d,” the lyrics say, “don’t let me pray alone.” As we join together in community to pray together with those who are ill, those who care for them, and those who love them, we become a “kingdom of priests and a holy people,” going out to the ill and bringing them home.
Cantor Sally Neff