Much like COVID, pandemics throughout history, from the Black Death to the 1918 influenza outbreak to HIV/AIDS, all have exposed deep fissures within our society. Plagues magnify issues of economic disparity, access to quality health care, and food and housing insecurity (G. Alfani & T. Murphy, “Plague and Lethal Epidemics in the Pre-Industrial World,” Journal of Economic History 77,no. 1 (2017):314-43). As studies have shown us time and again, fears caused by pandemics have often been used by those who would assign blame and further the harm of their homophobia, xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism.
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33), provides an important model for discussing how we confront inequalities in society when tackling infectious disease. Our text lists various laws dealing with tzaraat, often mistranslated as “leprosy.” Tzaraat is a scaly infection that, according to the Torah, affects the human body, clothing, and the walls of our homes in the Land of Israel.
As shared last week with the portion, Tazria, much of the traditional rabbinic commentary focuses on the cause of tzaraat. The idea is simple: if we know the cause, we can avoid the plague. The Talmud teaches us that tzaraat afflicts people “for malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, forbidden sexual relations, arrogance, theft, and stinginess.” (Arachin 16a) In Numbers 12, Moses’s sister Miriam is afflicted with the scaly infection after she and Aaron speak poorly of Moses. The rabbis taught us that metzora is a phrase from motzi shem ra – one whose speech is intended either to be evil or to take advantage of others.
According to Rabbi Asher Gottesfeld Knight in the new SOCIAL JUSTICE TORAH COMMENTARY, this “blame-the-victim” analysis is troubling. When seen in context of the Torah portion, both here and in Numbers, that the individual who is infected is to be isolated and quarantined, the victim is not only culpable for the illness but also a clear and present danger to the health and well-being of the society. Further, if infection with the scaly disease is a result of divine retribution for infected persons’ bad deeds, then they are culpable and responsible for everything that happens and the pain they bring to themselves and others. Still, the Torah offers the possibility of redemption: if they make restitution through the priests, then they may be healed.
As COVID-19 has disproportionally killed members of racial and ethnic minority groups, there were too many that blamed the victims, pointing to preexisting conditions or questioning what people were doing or not to contract the disease. Yet, we have to acknowledge that larger structural issues are at play. Many people suffer from systemic poverty and lack of access to health care and proper nutrition. Many people who are economically challenged disproportionally hold lower-paying frontline positions within the service sector and health-care system, making them more vulnerable to exposure. It is safe to say that many of the early victims of this pandemic were also victims of our society’s failures.
Our portion teaches us that the afflicted have a personal responsibility to warn others by declaring, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house”(14:35). But, there is a communal responsibility as well. We have to help the affected to heal – for their health and well-being – will affect us as well. As we continue our preparation for Passover, may we remember once again, we are all in this together.