Do you ever feel like a leper? Just yesterday, a friend of mine wrote a powerful and ultimately hopeful posting about what it is to be in that awful place that is “alone.” I think many of us have experienced, at some point in their lives, an estrangement to family, friends, colleagues, synagogue, social group, community, perhaps even our own faith or G”d. We experience a kind of spiritual leprosy. Sometimes the estrangement emanates from our side, other times it seems to emanate from the others-we feel as if we are being treated like lepers. It's not a pleasant feeling, whatever the source. It can feel like an impossible place from which to escape. When you are seemingly alone, where do you turn for help? For some, for many, it is to G”d, or their understanding of the Divine. Others discover that even in the depths of being alone, there may be, to borrow from my friends thoughts, hands reaching out to you in the darkness, or breadcrumbs to follow that might lead you out of the dark.
So, what do you do when you are a spiritual or emotional leper? Do you sit around feeling sorry for yourself? Do you develop an intense dislike of those who distance themselves from you as if you were the carrier of a horrible and contagious disease? Do you develop an intense dislike of yourself, instead? Do you begin to wonder "am I really a leper, that people avoid me, push me away, distance themselves?"
The Haftarah for Tazria/Metzora is taken from First Kings, chapter 7. It starts with the story of four lepers who were living just outside their own community even though it was a time of war and siege.
Now, in one sense, these lepers were not alone – they had each others’ company. In another sense, they were still very much each of them, alone – separated from their community. Their solution involved both having their own community, yet still finding a way to feel connected to the very community that had eschewed and shunned them. That is something quite remarkable. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The text tells us that none of the four lepers really thought it was a good idea to just sit around waiting to die of starvation, or be killed by the enemy. They apparently believed going inside the city was an option open to them (thus, they must have felt their fellow Israelites were ultimately good hearted and would not turn away even a leper under these circumstances.I wish I could share their faith. History has left us with far too many examples when folks like these lepers were left outside the gates.) They decided against going back into the city, figuring it was under siege and in pretty bad shape-they might wind up dying of starvation if they went into the city. So in this sense, their pragmatism outweighed their sense of loyalty and dedication to the city – certainly understandable given how they were treated – though in their world view they may not have been that resentful at their isolation, understanding why it was necessary, and accepting it. It’s a very Socratic way of looking at things. As citizens of the city, they must abide by its rules and laws, and in their case that meant isolation (a fate, I suppose, less harsh than that which Socrates had to suffer for his sense of ethics.)
What an irony-here we have four lepers, outcasts in their own community, and by G”d's commandments no less-yet somehow they feel they might be better off than their fellow countrymen inside the city! That’s one way to put a positive spin on a pretty negative situation. We might be stuck outside the gates, and suffering from leprosy, but they’re gonna starve stuck inside the city! Aren’t we lucky. Pause. Sigh.
The other option they considered was to go to the enemy camp. They figured, either they will kill us instantly, or let them live. Yet another irony-despite their own circumstances, they considered going to the enemy camp as deserting! Still, they decide this seems the best option. They preferred a quick death, if they were to die, than one of starvation.
It’s interesting that they didn’t consider other options, like simply running away and finding someplace else to live. What kept them in the area? Family? Loyalty? Ennui?
So they steal their way into the enemy camp-to find it deserted. (The text kindly tells us that G”d had frightened away the enemy with sounds of an approaching army.) They help themselves to some spoils-but then they stop and say to themselves that here they are, taking advantage of their good fortune, yet an event of even greater import, one that was great news to their own community, had taken place. They must go report this to the city. Those pesky ethics again.
They shout the good news to the gatekeeper-and then we hear no more about them, their "good deed" done. (In the continuing story, a disbelieving King sends out scouts, who eventually confirm that the enemy army has retreated.)
These lepers, forced out of their own community, still felt connected to it, felt drawn to share the news of G”d’s boon of good fortune in chasing away their enemies. If they can act this way, so can we all, when we feel tainted with our own kinds of spiritual and emotional leprosy. It's an important lesson to us all.
Now I would feel a lot better about this story if the lepers were somehow rewarded for their loyalty to the city. I’d feel better if I’d known that the city had cared enough to check up on the lepers to make sure they were okay, but there’s no evidence that anyone in the city inquired after the lepers, either before or after their loyal deed.
I’ve been disappointed by my spiritual communities before. Even disappointed by my friends. Yet somehow I have always managed to find my way back from my isolation. Sometimes, the way back from that isolation was to do something for my spiritual community (or friends) even when I was feeling isolated from (and/or by) them. It’s when you least feel like going to services that going can often do you those most good. At other times, despite my surety of isolation, there were hands that reached out to me, or I found some breadcrumbs to follow into the light. Sometimes, I am sure that hand belonged to my understanding of G”d, or those breadcrumbs were placed there by G”d.
These lepers were perhaps lucky that they had each other, that they could discuss, decides, and ultimately work together to deal with their situation. Sometimes, when we are feeling like a leper, we forget there are probably other people around us feeling the same way. It’s probably worth the time, when you’re feeling like a leper, to look around for others who share your circumstances, and can perhaps help you have some sense of community. Together perhaps you can find your way back into the greater community, or perhaps you’ll just become your own community. I’d like to advocate for the former as a worthy goal, though I accept that, sometimes, it is not realistic and the latter may be the only option available.
Should it be entirely up tot the lepers to find their way back to the community? Or does the community have a responsibility to find a way to bring the lepers home? I certainly believe it does.
Does your spiritual community strive to find those who feel isolated from it? Are you part of that? Can you help make that happen? I think we should all be on the lookout for the lepers. It doesn’t matter if they are lepers because they were shunned or ignored by the community, or if their isolation was more self-imposed, or some combination or variation of these situations. The very fact that they are or feel isolated should be enough for us to be concerned about them and care for them. Just as we have all found hands in the dark, found breadcrumbs, so too, can we be those hands reaching out to others in the dark, those leaving those breadcrumbs.
If we can all commit ourselves to this, then it will be easier for all of us to remember that even when we feel like a leper, our community, our friends should still matter to us-as we matter to them. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. All Israel is responsible one to the other.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester, portions ©2000
Other Musings on This Parasha:
Tazria-Metzora 5772 - We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy