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Torah Sparks

April 21, 2007 – 3 Iyar 5767

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 14:33 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim p. 663; Hertz p. 473)
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3 - 20 (Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashiot

Most of our reading this week deals with the human body. Although the human body is familiar to us, the approach to the body reflected in these chapters may be foreign to the twenty-first-century mind.

The Torah tells us that a woman is to undergo a period of ritual impurity after childbirth. Surprisingly, the prescribed period differs depending on whether a boy or a girl was born.

A great deal of attention is paid to tzara’at, a leprosy-like skin disease. Specific procedures are set forth for diagnosis and for quarantine. A sacrifice is to be offered upon remission. We learn that tzara’at may afflict not only people but also garments and even houses.

The Torah also directs our attention to the discharge of body fluids, those from males, those from females, and some from either. There are rituals of purification available for such circumstances.

Issue #1: Illness and Privacy

As for the person with a leprous affliction, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

The leper is required to call out to warn others of his own illness. We assume that this is done because of a concern that the disease may be communicable, thus threatening others. The community clearly has a legitimate need to know that overrides our possible concern for the leper’s privacy.

We often face a different situation in our synagogues, as well as in our personal lives nowadays. When we learn that a neighbor or friend is in the hospital (or being treatedat home), we would like to tell others about this illness, not as an exercise in gossip, but as an opportunity for peers to extend a helping hand or a word of encouragement to the sick person. Yet it is quite possible that the person who is ill is not yet ready to share the private fact of being sick with the world at large.

How should we balance the community’s natural desire to know against the individual’s legitimate right to privacy? This is not simply an intellectual exercise. Any one of us is likely at some time or another to find ourselves in either or both of those positions.

Rabbis and physicians, especially, are caught in the middle. Most people understand that medical ethics prevent a doctor from discussing the details of a patient’s illness with others. But rabbis are often expected to extend get-well wishes from the pulpit. Often, because the rabbi has wished a r’fuah sh’leimah (thorough recovery) to someone from the pulpit, after the service well-meaning congregants ask the rabbi for personal information about the sick person. This information may have been given to the rabbi confidentially by the patient or by a family member. As more and more communities take the opportunity for a congregational well wishing during the service, more people will hear other people’s names, and see their family and friends pray publicly for healing. If you have recited that prayer, how can you respond truthfully and sociably without violating a confidence, and without making others reluctant to seek prayer and counsel in the future? How can you offer support and help without seeming pushy?

Extensive medical privacy laws are widespread throughout the United States; clearly the legal community has found the right to privacy of greater value than a community’s need to know in order to provide support and help for patient and caregivers. How should our congregational communities deal with this tension?

Issue #2: Perspective in Diagnosis

A person may look at (i.e. evaluate) all afflictions, except his own afflictions. (Mishnah, N’ga-im 2:5)

This rule implies that when someone is too close to a problem, he or she may not be able to see it in a proper perspective. Although this rule was designed for the diagnosis of skin diseases, might it not have broader applicability in areas other than medicine?

  1. On the political or legal scene, there is often a sense that a person might have a conflict of interest in a case or situation. Following the mishnah’s logic, who should best determine if that person should pull back or recuse him- or herself from a case or negotiation? How do we determine whether or not a particular situation poses a conflict of interest for a public official?
  2. How should a corporation assure itself (and others) that it is acting in a way that pays due regard to the public interest?
  3. Why do people find it useful to bring their personal problems to counselors or advisers, even if the counselor is no more intelligent than the person seeking advice?

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