>I am rather fond of the Monty Python boys and their brand of comedy, and while it might sound strange I rather enjoy the way that they make fun of religion and religious sensibilities. It is therefore unsurprising that I particularly enjoy their film the ‘Life of Brian’. While some may consider it sacrilegious, I think it provides a humorous take on what first century Israel might have been like, and how religions developed there. In one of the scenes we watch as lepers beg for money from passers-by and Michael Palin’s character hops around requesting: ‘alms for an ex-leper’. In response to the question who cured you? He explains: ‘Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business. All of a sudden, up he comes. Cures me. One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by your leave. “You’re cured mate.”’
The leper in ‘Life of Brian’ draws on the New Testament and the suggestion that Jesus could miraculously cure leprosy. In Matthew 8:1-3 after completing his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus touched a leper, curing him of his disease. To read both the TaNaKh and the New Testament, one would imagine that this was a rather widespread disease in the Biblical period. In this week’s Torah portion we do not read of an individual miraculous cure, instead we read ‘the Torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing’ (Leviticus 14:2).
The leper at this point no longer has the disease of the skin, but this does not automatically mean that he or she is ready to return to the camp; instead there is a purification ritual for the leper. The first part involves: ‘two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified’ (Leviticus 14:4). And after this part of the ritual ‘the one to be purified shall wash those clothes, shave off all hair, and bathe in water – and then shall be pure’ (Leviticus 14:8).
However, although this then permitted entry into the camp, the person was still forbidden from entering his or her tent for seven days; and on the eighth day a further sacrificial ritual was required involving lambs and flour. At the conclusion ‘the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meal offering on the altar; the priest shall make expiation for that person, who shall then be pure’ (Leviticus 14:20).
In the discussion of these rituals there is no suggestion of a miracle leading to the cure of leprosy and the person’s purification. But with the sacrifices involved one might consider a deeper understanding of what was actually happening. Perhaps we can liken the first ritual involving birds and the shaving of hair to a medical procedure, which was intended to ensure that the disease had been removed from the body. After this course of treatment, there was then a further ritual, which involved the lambs and the offering of a sacrifice, marking the conclusion and successful recovery from the disease.
Implicit in the inclusion of a sacrifice at the end of the treatment is an acknowledgement of thanks to God for the cure and the recovery. While we may no longer offer sacrifices, there is something powerful about a ritual which marks the end of an illness and a return to full health. We say a prayer for healing for those members of our community who are suffering or ill, but we do not recite a prayer to celebrate their recovery from illness. The Birkat HaGomel (on page 241 in the MRJ Siddur) is a prayer which is traditionally recited after a life-threatening experience, offering an opportunity to thank God for survival. And perhaps we need to supplement this with a prayer for recovery from illness, which may not have been life-threatening, but is equally worthy of note and prayer.
It is also worth noting that the leper was not rushed back from his or her sick bed, and went through an eight day process before being permitted to assume a full role back in the society. In part this may have been due to the societal concerns about the transmission of the disease, but it also meant that the ex-leper had an opportunity to readjust and reacclimatise back into society. Perhaps if the leper in the ‘Life of Brian’ had been allowed this ritual, rather than receiving a miraculous cure, he might have adjusted better upon his return to health and society.