This week's double portion describes the affliction of tzara'at, a kind of leprosy, and how the community is to respond. If a person suspects he has this condition, he must go to the kohein for diagnosis. If the kohein diagnoses tzara'at, he sends the person into quarantine for a week, returns to check his condition, and if necessary continues the quarantine until the person is ready to return to the community.
The time spent in quarantine allows the person to reflect on his deeds and seek forgiveness from God. Tzara'at is not a medical condition; it is of divine origin, an outward consequence of sin, and it must be removed by God. The whole process of interacting with the kohein and going into quarantine is meant to address the sin that led to the problem in the first place.
This quarantine isn't the exile we sometimes imagine. We've all seen movies or other depictions where an obviously-sick leper walks through the streets shouting "unclean, unclean" and people run away from him or drive him out of town. This is not the interpretation of the rabbis; the talmud says that one reason for announcing the condition is so that the community will pray for the person's recovery. While the afflicted person is isolated physically, he is not to be isolated in the hearts and minds of the community. The quarantine is to facilitate teshuva; it is not a shunning. When the metzora, the afflicted person, returns to the community, the event is over. We see this when it happens to Miriam; she goes out of the camp, is healed, and returns to the community, and we hear no more about it.
Tzara'at does not affect us today, but other problems do and we are sometimes all too ready to exile people who make mistakes or don't blend in. Maybe we hold grudges long past the time when a person has corrected his errors. Maybe we judge the homeless person who approaches us on the street, thinking he brought it on himself. Maybe we avoid the socially-awkward person at the social event, thinking that he needs to try harder.
By doing so, we contribute to isolation much worse than what's described in the parsha. Unlike with tzara'at, this quarantine doesn't end. We might not isolate people physically, but doing it in our hearts, sending someone into a spiritual quarantine, is no better.
It can be hard to reach out to people; we don't know how they'll react or if they'll welcome help. Sometimes a person wants, and needs, to be left alone. But we don't bear the entire burden here; we can take our cues from the parsha:
The metzora, not the community, takes responsibility for the problem; he, not the community, initiates the diagnosis. The kohein does not cut him off; he checks in on the metzora periodically to see if his condition has changed, but the metzora himself has to address the problem. The community, for its part, prays for the metzora and welcomes him when he is ready to join the community. Once he returns, the matter is closed.
We are not responsible for solving other people's problems, but neither can we ignore people. May we have the strength to care, to keep others in our hearts, and to allow them to move on and become active parts of our community. And when we suffer from some affliction, may we have the strength to recognize it, spend the time to work on it, and ask the community for support.