The detection and treatment of Hansen’s Disease (previously known as leprosy) seems a trivial concern for us today: fewer than 200 new cases were reported in the United States in 2014. Yet the Torah devotes a disproportionate amount of space to the topic of the detection and treatment of the disease. While this may very well have been a real medical concern for our ancestors, for us at has no practical significance.
Fortunately, our tradition has been enriched by the insights of those commentators who have managed to look beyond the obvious and go beyond the simple reading of the text to find new meaning. One such commentator was Rabbi Asher of Stalin, a disciple of the great eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin.
Rabbi Asher notes that beginning with Leviticus 13, the priests are enjoined to proceed in a series of examinations once a person was discovered to have symptoms. First, the priest must make an initial examination to determine whether or not the symptoms suggest that the scab or discoloration is leprous. For cases that are unclear the Torah prescribes a period of isolation. After the period of isolation ends, the priest examines the progress of the discoloration to determine if it is indeed leprous. If it is, a detailed regimen of treatment, including rites of purification, must be performed. Once the disease has passed, the priest must re-examine the afflicted body to be sure that it is leprosy free. Only then may the purification be performed.
From this procedure it is clear that the person afflicted with symptoms had to be open to repeated examination. Every scab, every mark, every spot had to be thoroughly inspected by the priest. This, Rabbi Asher noted, was in contrast to the Jews of his day. He calls them “men of straw,” that is, of no substance or good character. “When they go to see the rebbe, they set before him that which is good and hide the evil. When I came to my teacher and holy master I did not show him an inch of what was good in me. Is he the bestower of reward and punishment? Rather, the evil that is in me – every affliction, every wound – I revealed to him in order to fulfill the verse (Leviticus 13:3): ‘The priest shall see the affliction, and with seeing, he will heal him.’”
Illness cannot be discovered by hiding the symptoms. Should people feel ill, they tell the doctor all that bothers them. Only then can the doctor make an accurate diagnosis. This is what Rabbi Asher derives from the text. In order to grow morally, we similarly need to reveal our shortcomings rather than hide them or deny them.
Few Jews today actually go to a rebbe and make confession of character flaws. But the point is still relevant. Whether we admit our shortcomings to God or just to ourselves, the outcome would be the same. The leprosy narrative, read broadly, is a guide to self-improvement.