This week’s parashah deals with a somewhat puzzling disease, called tzara’at, often translated as “leprosy.” As the Torah describes it, it’s an affliction that could appear on human skin, on clothes, or even infect houses.
It’s not clear if the affliction is truly physical, as Leviticus seems to indicate, or if it’s a physical manifestation of spiritual distress, as a number of commentators suggest. However, either way, the solution to the problem is isolation. The afflicted party is shut up for a week or more, forced to live outside the camp, away from the rest of his or her community.
On the one hand, this quarantine is traditionally understood not as a punishment, but rather a time to recover and protect others from infection. One could also imagine it as something of a retreat—a time for someone who is physically or spiritually unwell to recuperate and regain strength.
On the other, well, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like to be told that you must be cast away from loving, human connection as a result of contracting an ailment or stumbling interpersonally. What kind of impact did being sent away from the camp have on the afflicted?
Between 80,000-100,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day, many for rather minor infractions. Despite the fact that more than 15 hours in solitary confinement may begin to have an adverse impact on a prisoner’s mental health, the average sentence in solitary can run, depending on the state, anywhere from 23 months to 7.5 years, and longer for those on death row. Many argue that, in light of the significant mental harm that it causes, solitary confinement should be classified as a form of torture.
Joe Giarratano, a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison, reflects:
Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally; solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my… stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.
Many traditional commentators attempt to cast the metzora, the one with this strange Biblical leprosy, as responsible for their own suffering—for example, citing a tendency towards malicious gossip as the reason the person needed to be exiled. But there’s another textual tradition that regards them with a softer eye.
For, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) tells us, no less than the Messiah will be found sitting among the lepers, and will be known as “the leper scholar.” That is to say, the one who will bring healing and redemption to the world aligns her- or himself with those who have been forced into isolation. And the Sifra, the ancient midrash on Leviticus, tells us that, even in the lepers’ isolation, “the Divine Presence still abides among them.”
It’s on God to be with those who suffer. It’s on us to prevent unnecessary suffering, insofar as we are able. When we push for just and humane reforms to our contemporary prison system, we engage in the work of the Messiah.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@theRaDR) is the author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting and six other books, and has been named by Newsweek as one of ten “rabbis to watch.”