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How to Respond to Pandemics

Torah Talk on Tazria 5779

This week we read one of the least appetizing Torah portions of the whole year, Tazria from the Book of Leviticus. It contains instructions on the treatment of a truly horrible ancient illness, leprosy, that still exists in the world, although it isn’t much in evidence in America these days, thank God.

Tazria delineates the ways in which we are to treat individuals afflicted with a terrible, frightening disease that our ancestors regarded as contagious. The methods specified—sanitary conditions and quarantine—are still in use today and are often considered state-of-the-art medical means of controlling infection. In the Torah there in no negative moral valence placed on those who are ill. People infected with the dread skin affliction are not considered to have brought it on themselves by any bad action or error. Rather, they are simply unfortunate, and are isolated for their own protection and that of the general society’s.

In the ancient world this was cutting-edge treatment of the infirm, far ahead of what most cultures would do even millennia later.

But even in our own world, we should be aware that we rarely treat those who are gravely ill with frightening, poorly understood illnesses very well. You may remember when the AIDS “epidemic” began. There was general panic about how to treat those infected, and with no justification many individuals were ostracized from schools, neighborhoods, athletic competition and society in general. It took years of education and experience before we began to understand that complex ailment, and were able to deal with it intelligently and, sometimes, sensitively.

While we are more scientifically knowledgeable about disease today, we are probably no more emotionally advanced in dealing with dreaded illnesses than our Israelite forbears were three thousand years ago in Tazria. When various illnesses turn epidemic we tend to respond with horror and fear, and not we also often distrust the authoritative scientific sources that provide the best responses to potential pandemics. In 2015 it was Ebola, which has recurred. In other years it has been avian flu, or MERSA. Invariably, we begin with panic and only gradually move to more effective responses.

Our ancestors, with far less practical medical and public health ability to address illness, turned to God for help—but they also generally treated those who were ill with compassion and care.

We can learn these qualities from them today, but perhaps reverse the order. We can treat those who are ill and whose diseases frighten us with compassion and support. And we can ask the ultimate healer, God, to provide healing for the ill, and emotional strength for the rest of us.

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