It’s not very often that the Torah tells us about illness. Generally, Biblical characters get old and die, or meet with a violent death. The language near the end of Genesis about Ya’akov’s illness suggests that even the concept of a terminal illness was foreign enough to be surprising to others.
But this week, in Parshat Metzora, illness is the major focus.Tzara’at, a serious and contagious skin ailment, is subject to evaluation and diagnosis by the priests, the resident experts on this condition. And from the regulations laid out in the parshah, we can learn Judaism’s underlying principles of care for the sick.
For example, at the end of the section dealing with tzara’at, the Torah summarizes: “Zot torat hatzara’at–such is the ritual concerning eruptions” (Leviticus 14:57). But the word torat reminds the rabbis of the midrash of the concept of hora-ah, expert training or instruction. “This teaches that a priest does not evaluate skin blemishes until his master teacher trains him” (Sifra Metzora 7:16).
Anyone who has ever been in a teaching hospital is familiar with the scene of a cluster of doctors attending to a patient together, with the interns taking copious notes from the mentoring physician. That’s a modern adaptation of the midrashic guidelines–one can only give expert medical advice after spending time under the tutelage of experts. But the dynamic around the patient can get complicated in this scenario. What about the patient’s privacy or dignity? What if the patient isn’t willing to be exhibit A for the interns? Are there overarching principles that we could apply to decide how best to train doctors while affirming the emotional and physical needs of the patient?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll explore these questions with the assistance of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the giants of Jewish medical ethics.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise