When my parents first talked to me about becoming bar mitzvah, I said I wanted to, because my grandpa wanted me to carry on Jewish tradition. He was a really cool guy and I liked the way he was. He was really proud to be Jewish. He kept telling us to write, "He was a Jew" on his tombstone. So when he wanted me to have a bar mitzvah I thought I would do it to carry on the tradition. When I first looked at my torah portion, oh boy! I thought, this is going to take awhile! It looked difficult. It was very repetitive and had an odd theme. I had to look at it for a long time before I realized what it has to do with me.
My portion is called Tazria. It is in the book of Leviticus. The main topic of my Torah portion is skin diseases and how to find out which one a person has. It describes all different kinds of skin problems and what had to be done in order to deal with them. It talks about the stages you went through in determining who had which kind of disease. The priest had to determine whether a person had leprosy or just a scab. The priest would look for risings in the skin, spreading of the rising in the skin, color of the scab or whatever you want to call it. If a person had something that looked like it might be leprosy, the priest would quarantine him and then examine the person again in seven days.
The Bible was very precise in deciding who to quarantine. My portion describes the process like this: "If a man hath the plague, the priest shall shut him up seven days, and upon the seventh day the priest shall look upon him and behold, if the plague shall not be spread in the skin the priest shall shut him up seven more days and behold, if upon the 7th day, the plague shall not be spread in the skin the priest shall pronounce him clean it is a scab, and he shall was his clothes and be clean. But if the scab spread abroad in the skin after he hath shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall show himself to the priest again. And the priest shall look, and behold, if the scab be spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean, it is leprosy.
In the bible leprosy is usually just considered as a medical problem. It is a disease that you just catch it and then you have it. It just appears one day and then you have a scab. It is not usually thought of as a punishment for something or a social problem. But in one case, Miriam and Aaron protest protest Moses Leadership. Miriam becomes angryand says, "God does not only speak to Moses, he speaks to us all. Moses is not so special. God then appears and says, "I do not speak to all. I speak only to Moses. You shall now be punished." God then turns Miriam leprous.
So therefore, in this case we could make a connection between being quarantined for having leprosy and being quarantined or punished for a sin. And therefore we can think of leprosy not only as a disease but as a punishment. The bible only mentions this one occasion when leprosy was used as a divine punishment for a sin. But the later Jewish tradition makes this connection all the time. They see leprosy as a punishment for many different kinds of sins.
One of the world's many problems which has been going on for many many years is mass punishment. Mass punishment is when a large group of people is punished for only one person or a small group's wrongdoing. We think Osama bin Laden attacked us, so we are leveling Afghanistan. Afghanistan was chosen because he was residing in Afghanistan at the time. Instead the United States could have tried to find Osama bydoing a search for him specifically instead of just destroying all those towns and hoping he was in one of them. We have killed thousands more people in Afghanistan than died in the World Trade Center. On a different scale, looking back in history we can see that the Boston Massacre was an example of mass punishment. Right before the Boston Massacre, soldiers were making people on the street move, they were homeless people or something. The people refused, and the soldiers kept trying to make them move. But they wouldn't. One person two people on the street started beating up the soldier. And then a big group of soldiers came in and shot all the people on the street. A very large group of people was killed. Then, on a totally different scale, looking at events in our everyday lives, sometimes one student talks out in class and the whole class has to stay inside for ten minutes during lunch. In this case no one is killed or even injured, but everyone was prevented from their normal enjoyment of lunchtime. In all these examples one person or a small group of people did something wrong, and a whole group of people got punished for it.
The High Priest didn't want to lock people up. He must have said to himself, "If they have leprosy they may spread it to other people. So we have to lock them up so that other people won't catch it." He never said, "I am so happy I get to lock this person up!" The High Priest doesn't have that attitude of wanting to punish. It probably didn't feel good for the priest to have to quarantine people. But he knew that he sometimes had to do this in order to protect a bunch of people. It was a responsibility he took seriously. He made sure that they really had leprosy. He didn't just presume that they had it and lock them up. In my examples of mass punishment in each case the person doing the punishment doesn't go to the trouble to really determine who did what. They just hold a whole group of people accountable for what only a few people actually did.
We learn from my Torah portion that you should be very precise in who you decide to punish, or in this case quarantine. You shouldn't just throw people in a cell and call it good. You should have lots of checks and balances. You should check the facts and make sure the accused is proven guilty or that the person with a sore really has an infectiousdisease. Even then you should inflict the least amount of damage possible to protect other people.
All of us have situations where we judge and punish other people. When I see kids hanging around playing computer games when they could be outside on a nice day playing lacrosse, I judge them as nerds. I have called people nerds to their face. I'm not always the nicest guy. When I do that, I am disagreeing with everything that I just said in my davar torah. I just said that you should be really careful to check the facts before you accuse anyone. And here I am calling someone a nerd just because they play computer games. In this situation my Torah portion reminds me that they may still be a nice person even if they do something that I might not like to do. My Torah portion tells me that I need to find out a lot more about that person, maybe see what they are doing a week later before I decide that they are worth calling a nerd. Next time any of us makes an accusation or punishes someone we should look a second time (and maybe a third!) and make sure it is right.
© Max Kemper Johansen 2002
updated 07/08/2002 - rge
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