Leviticus Hizkuni: Tazria
According to scholars, one of the most influential individuals in the history of knowledge was a man by the lengthy name of Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’. In English he is more commonly known by his Latinized name: Avicenna.
Approximately one thousand years ago, Avicenna discovered the contagious aspect of infectious diseases and was the first to prescribe quarantine as a means of limiting contagion.
However, more than two thousand years before Avicenna, the Children of Israel were practicing quarantine – not for physical maladies, but rather for spiritual ones.
The Torah explains in great detail the malady of tzaraat, which is commonly and mistakenly translated as leprosy. The Rabbis explain that tzaraat was a direct physical manifestation on the skin of a spiritually diseased person. It is most often associated with the sin of tale-bearing; however there are a host of other sins that are also attributed to tzaraat.
Part of the treatment for someone stricken with tzaraat was to exile them from the Camp of Israel. They were to have no human contact and be treated as if they were dead. The afflicted individual also practiced the rituals of mourning, basically mourning their own quasi-death (see this week’s story below for a fictionalized interpretation).
Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that the reason for the exile was not only as a corrective measure for the sinner. It was also to protect the community from the sinner’s negative traits until his rehabilitation was complete and he could once again safely join the community of Israel. Hizkuni indicates that the condition of tzaraat, of picking up a spiritual ailment, is contagious.
Thus, according to Hizkuni, the exile of the sinner served a twofold purpose. The primary one was for him to be separated from his daily life, routine and overall normal human existence and consider the severity of his sin which has transformed him into someone who is functionally ‘dead’ in the eyes of God and the community. This painful separation would hopefully cause him to return from the error of his ways. The second was to keep the toxic influence of the person with tzaraat away from the community, lest it infect others.
May we always aim for and surround ourselves with spiritual health and thereby also achieve, maintain and spread physical health.
To the speedy recovery of all those that need it.