Sickness and Sin (Parshat Tazria)

Commentary on Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

In the world of Tazria, scaly, raw, and oozing pustules called tzara’at erupt on the skin and spread impurity through the camp. Those who suffer from this illness are isolated. The word used in Leviticus to describe this skin ailment is nega, which specifically means a plague sent by God as punishment, as in: “Adonai plagued (naga) Pharaoh with mighty plagues (n’ga’im)” (Genesis 12:17).  

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In the Bible, it is unclear what personal failings cause tzara’at. However, the Midrash remembers that Miriam was inflicted with tzara’at (often misleadingly translated as leprosy) after she speaks ill of Moses’s wife in Numbers 12, so the rabbis imagined that tzara’at was a punishment for gossip (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 16:1-6).

It makes sense that in the pre-modern world, illness would feel like a punishment from God: impossible to comprehend, quickly spreading, demanding explanation. However, in the 21st century we understand so much more about disease. We know that germs and wayward cells behave in complex ways, few of them in our control. You would think that a view of illness based on personal failings would have all but disappeared in 2018, and yet it’s still going strong.  In modern times we talk about “defeating cancer,” “battling disease,” and “overcoming disabilities.” And wherever there are winners, there must be losers. These metaphors all imply that to be sick is to be a loser.

I work in hospice, and recently a client of mine died feeling guilty. Many people die with regrets, but this situation was particularly painful, as her regrets were not about having done anything wrong. She was consumed with guilt for not being able to “defeat” cancer through positive thinking. Sadly, this situation is not unique; people often die feeling guilty and burdensome due to their illness.

I can understand how they feel. As a chronically ill person, I’m regularly asked by well-intentioned community members if I couldn’t somehow cure my incurable conditions if only I tried a little harder, thought more positively, drank more kale smoothies, or meditated more deeply.

The last year has been terrible for people with chronic illness and disabilities in this country. Those with chronic conditions are no longer protected by the Affordable Care Act, and H.R. 620 recently passed in the House of Representatives. If this bill becomes law, it would undermine a key part of the longstanding, landmark civil rights law protecting people with disabilities—the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)—by making it much easier to discriminate against people with disabilities in public.

Underlying many of these changes is a Levitical view of illness.  In May of 2017, Republican Senator Mo Brooks defended the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act with these words: “It will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool that helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy [Emphasis added]. And right now, those are the people who have done things the right way that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.”

In an unusual Talmud passage, the Sages take turns being sick and visiting each other. At the end, Rabbi Eleazar is old, ill, and approaching death. He is weeping in his room when Rabbi Johanan comes to visit and asks him if he is weeping due to regret. Does he regret how he lived his life? R. Eleazar explains that he lived a full life and he has no regrets: “I am weeping,” he says, “on account of this beauty [my body that is in the image of God] that is going to rot in the earth.”  Rabbi Johanan replies: “On that account you surely have a reason to weep,” and they both wept (Talmud Brachot 5b).

This text offers a very different view of illness than the world of Tazria or American politics. In this text, we each have times of being sick; illness and decline are parts of life, not punishments for bad decisions. Here, a body that’s old and sick is seen as beautiful, and made in the image of God.  The loss of that beautiful body, no matter how disabled, is always worth weeping for.

For me, letting go of the Levitical view of illness is a gradual unlearning, a leaning away from all the subtle ways we see illness and aging as failing. “The body is not an apology,” writes Sonya Renee Taylor in a poem that led to a book and a blog. “The body is not calamity. The body is not a math test.  The body is not a wrong answer. The body is not a failed class. You are not failing. The body is not an apology.”

Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, where he also co-directs Kol HaNeshama: A Jewish End of Life Spiritual Care Volunteer Program.

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