The Scars Within and Without

Nearly 100 years ago, Joan Crawford was blessed with perhaps the most beautiful face in Hollywood. In 1941, however, she played a disfigured blackmailer who despises the world. Even after a miracle operation that restores her beauty, she cannot decide to abandon her life of crime and hate. For too many years, she has been a scarred woman.

We all bear scars because we were created imperfect, albeit with an opportunity to improve. Most of our scars are found within where they cannot be seen. We disguise jealousy as caring, hate as moral outrage, malicious gossip as the right to know, and destruction as sacrifice. Some of us are highly skilled in this, suitable for such professions as politicians, lawyers, public relations and journalism.

But there is a G-d above and He sees all. In this week’s Torah portion, G-d introduces something that is unique to the Jewish people — today what might be called leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. A Jew who thought he was an upright citizen finds himself with an inexplicable discoloration of or growth on his skin. His eyelashes and eyebrows have fallen off. The physicians have failed him. His last resort is the Kohen.

“The Kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath [leprosy]. When the Kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean.”

Why is he “unclean”? He is obviously ill, suffering from a physical and debilitating disease. He needs medical care not moral judgment.

In Judaism, there is a clear answer. Maimonides, perhaps the foremost physician of all time, wrote at least 18 books on medicine, many of which remain treasured by those in the health profession. His view stems from the Talmud: A sick body reflects a sick soul. There is no separation.

Several years ago, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky met a man who suffered from what he was told was an incurable disease. The man’s bone structure was filled with holes and the physicians had no idea how this appeared. The rabbi was the last hope.

Rabbi Kanievsky, the leading Torah scholar in our time, did not hesitate. He said the man’s illness was directly linked to his behavior. The holes in his bones were the holes in his Jewish soul. The rabbi urged the man to examine his life, improve his service to G-d, whether that be prayer or daily Torah study.

A while later, the man returned to the sage. The holes had disappeared. The physicians were clueless but declared their patient healed.

The Torah says the leprosy that a Jew encounters could take place anywhere. It could be on his body, where the discoloration could be concealed by sleeves or trousers. It could be in his beard or worse on his face — seen by all. Leprosy could mar his clothes even his house.

Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, says the location of the leprosy indicates the bearer’s sin. The leprosy might begin in a spot on the body that could be easily hidden. But if not treated the disease will spread. When it reaches the face, it is G-d’s way of saying that the man can no longer ignore his condition.

“The Kohen shall quarantine the [person with the] lesion for seven days.”

The Kohen has become the doctor, albeit of last choice. His prescription is that the diseased man examine his life, his behavior, his soul. This task requires courage — the ability to take responsibility for one’s life and consequences as well as the decision to take another path. Many of us simply find that too hard.

After a week, the Jew returns to the Kohen. If the lesion remains then he is ordered to return to isolation for another week. He has not repented.

But if the discoloration dims and the lesion has not spread, then the Kohen will pronounce the man clean. It is no longer deemed leprosy rather mispachath, a temporary adhesion that will need to be monitored. But for now, this is not malignant.

A man incapable of repentance is truly a sick man, and that illness will emerge sooner or later. Unlike the theory that pervades in much of modern medicine, man is not multi-layered. He is a unified being, or as Maimonides puts it, the human soul is one.

The same goes for the Jewish nation. When it experiences plagues or terror in the streets, the answer is not more police or army. The answer is the same as that given by the Kohen in ancient times and Rabbi Kanievsky today — reflection and repentance.

There is no time to waste.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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