In the summer of my second year at rabbinic school I spent a week volunteering at the North London Hospice as part of my pastoral training. The hospice, unexpectedly, was a truly inspiring place. I watched as volunteers, nurses and doctors brought honour and dignity to the final weeks of peoples’ lives. The hospice was a place of care and compassion, a haven for people who were ill and suffering. There was no trepidation about coming into contact with people who were sick, no shadow hang over the place, and everyone was treated as independent adults.
One of the most striking experiences came on the final day when I joined a social worker on her visits to people who were not full time patients in the hospice. At the first old age home we visited, a carer met with us and said to us in a whisper: “she has cancer”. This woman could not bring herself to say the ‘c-word’ out loud, as though the word itself were a threatening disease. It was in stark contrast to the hospice itself, where all diseases, illnesses and ailments were spoken of in normal tones. The patient and the disease were not feared, they were treated.
A disease may not be contagious, but people may still be fearful of the patient, not just the word. In this week’s Torah portion the people are commanded: ‘take out off the camp every leper, and every one who has a bodily discharge, and whoever is defiled by the dead … that they defile not their camps’ (Numbers 5:2-3). In this context the leper, suffering from a disease is expelled from the camp – not necessarily the best way to encourage a full recovery.
Leprosy, bodily discharge and contact with the dead may appear as three unrelated occurrences. When viewing this Biblical commandment, we have to recognise that these three situations are related to impurity. All of these conditions would cause a person to be ritually impure and therefore spread this impurity. It is not a reference to leprosy as a disease; it is considering leprosy solely as an impurity.
When considering leprosy as a disease we have other obligations for the way in which we treat the sick. The Siddur, combining Mishnah Peah 1:1 and Shabbat 127a, states: ‘These are the things whose interest we enjoy in this world, while the capital remains for us in the world to come … visiting the sick’. This command is so important that we are rewarded for it twice – once in this world and once in the world to come.
Our Torah portion tells us to expel the leper from the camp, while we are rewarded for visiting the sick. Although they seem to contradict each other, they can function together. The law concerning leprosy refers to a disease which was considered to be a ritual impurity and transmissible. We need to be cautious about contagious diseases, but we must still visit the sick. Our visits, treating the patient with honour and dignity, can help to bring healing and comfort. We cannot and must not simply send them out off the camp to be forgotten and ignored.
The hospice taught me an important lesson about not allowing my fears of an illness or disease to effect the way that I treat the patient.
The law concerning leprosy was about ritual purity, which related to service in the Temple. We must consider that being fit to serve in the Temple was not just about external purity, but also about internal purity – the way we behave. Visiting the sick is a way of elevating our internal purity, and acting in a holy way, fitting of service for the Temple.