Instructions for diagnosing the biblical skin disease of tzara-at (צָרַעַת) fill most of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”). The end of the portion finally says what happens to people who have tzara-at.
And the person marked with tzara-at, his clothes shall be torn and his head [of hair] shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his lips, and he shall call out: “Tamei!” All the days that the mark is on him he shall be continually tamei. Alone he shall dwell; outside the camp is his dwelling-place. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)
tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, unfit for worshiping God.
Torn clothes, wild hair, and covered lips are all signs of mourning in the Hebrew Bible.1 People afflicted with tzara-at are not dead. But like those who mourn a family member’s death, they mourn their separation from those they love. They can no longer live together, or even come within touching distance. Calling out “Tamei” keeps people away, since the condition of being tamei (though not the skin disease itself) is contagious. Being tamei also prevents people with tzara-at from approaching God in the sanctuary courtyard.
Once a priest diagnoses tzara-at, the person with the disease is isolated from the camp, the community, and the service of God. The isolation may not be permanent; next week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes the rituals for removing the tamei status of those who have recovered from tza-arat and reintegrating them back into the community. Later in the bible are examples of two people healed by divine intervention,2 four men who do not expect they will ever recover,3 and a king who has tzara-at until he dies.4
The Psalms never mention tzara-at, but two psalms consider the anguish of someone with a serious disease—not because of pain, but because of isolation.
The bible generally assumes that disease is a punishment God inflicts when one has done the wrong thing. The speaker in Psalm 38 declares:
There is no sound spot in my flesh thanks to your curse,
There is no peace in my bones thanks to my error.
For my crimes pass through my head
Like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.
My wounds are making a stench
Through my own folly. (Psalm 38:4-6)
After complaining about a twisted body, burning guts, numbness, a violent heartbeat, and weakness, the speaker brings up another problem:
My loving ones and my friends stand apart from my affliction;
Those who are close to me stand meirachok. (Psalm 38:12)
meirachok (מֵרָחֺק) = at a distance, from away, staying far away. (A form of the verb rachak, רָחַק = was distant, drifted away from, kept far away.)
In the book of Job, the afflicted person’s “comforters” cluster around to tell him his sickness is his own fault, since God only sends disease to those who have sinned. In Psalm 38, the speaker believes the sickness is a well-deserved punishment, but the speaker’s friends stay away.
Meanwhile, the speaker’s enemies plot to take advantage of his illness, and the speaker is unable to hear or rebuke them. The only one left to listen to an appeal is God.
Because for you, God, I have hoped.
You will answer me, my master, my God.
Because I thought: “Lest they rejoice over me
When my foot staggers, magnify themselves over me!”
For I am certainly stumbling,
And my anguish is in front of me always. (Psalm 38:16-17)
The psalm ends:
Do not give up on me, God!
My God, do not tirechak from me!
Hasten to my aid,
My master, my rescuer. (Psalm 38:22-23)
tirechak (תִּרְחַק) = you stay distant, you keep away. (Another form of the verb rachak.)
The speaker is isolated from friends and family, who therefore cannot provide comfort; isolated from enemies, who scheme outside the speaker’s hearing range; and isolated from God, who does not seem to be present.
Psalm 88 opens with a sick person’s plea to God.
May my prayer come before you,
Stretch out your ears to my cry!
Because my living body is sated with bad things;
And my life has reached the brink of death.
I am counted among those who go into the pit.
I have become a strongman without strength. (Psalm 88:3-5)
This speaker blames God—who made him sick—for isolation from friends.
Hirechakta from me those who know me;
You make me abhorrent to them;
Imprisoned, I cannot go out. (Psalm 88:9)
hirechakta (הִרְחַקְתָּ) = you removed to a distance, you kept (something) far away. (Another form of the verb rachak.)
Then the sick person offers God a motivation for healing, pointing out that only the living can praise God.
Do you do wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise and praise you? (Psalm 88:10)
Yet the speaker remains isolated from God as well.
Why, God, do you reject me,
Do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:15)
The psalm ends with the pain of isolation.
Hirechakta my loving ones and my friends from me,
Those who know me—[into] darkness. (Psalm 88:19)
The worst thing about death is that it cuts off any possibility of communication, with humans or with God.5
Some people today have visible diseases, irregularities, or deformities, like the people with tzara-at in the bible. Although we no longer have a law isolating them, it is human nature to stare—or to carefully avoid looking at them. Meeting their eyes, smiling, and starting a normal conversation is harder, especially when the defect is on the face. Doing so anyway is the only ethical approach; yet because humans are weak and easily spooked, these people still suffer isolation.
Others today have invisible diseases; I am one. Reading Psalms 38 and 88 brings tears to my eyes. I can pass for healthy, and engage in society and communal worship like a healthy person (except that I cannot make a living because I’d need too many sick days, and I have to pace my activities to prevent exhaustion). I am grateful that I am not isolated from human company, and I have dear family and friends.
But with my whole heart I can speak or chant those words begging God: “Do not give up on me! Hasten to my aid! Why do you hide your face from me?”
I do not believe God afflicts us with physical problems as a punishment for disobedience or wrongdoing. Sometimes, in our misery, we expand our own set of physical problems with unwise behaviors. On the other hand, we may benefit from new scientific knowledge that repairs some of the things that go wrong in our bodies.
Nevertheless, I know that often bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. There is no divine justice for individuals.
Then why do we beg God to heal us? Why do we fix our hope on God?
Who else is there?
- Mourners customarily tear their clothes in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11, leave their hair loose and disheveled in in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11 and Ezekiel 24:17, and cover their lips in Ezekiel 24:17.
- The bible only records healing from tzara-at when there is divine intervention. In Numbers 12:10-15 God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at and then heals her. In 2 Kings 5:1-11, the prophet and miracle-worker Elisha heals General Na-aman of tzara-at.
- 2 Kings 7:3-16. The four men with tzara-at must stay outside the city walls even when the enemy is approaching to attack the city.
- 2 Kings 15:5. King Azaryah lives in an isolated house while his son Yotam does the king’s business in the palace and on the battlefield.
- Walter Brueggemann points out in The Message of the Psalms, Augburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 79: “This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. ‘The Pit’ [see Psalm 88:5] is not final judgment or a fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything.” I would amend this statement to say communion, with both human beings and God, is everything.
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