This week in Norway, the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik has been on trial for the murder of 77 people last summer. His crimes shocked the world, and appeared to come as a complete surprise to the people of Norway, who were distraught that someone like Breivik was living amongst them. On the way to his first jail meeting, his police escort was confronted by angry crowds, calling for his death and labeling him a traitor. The Norwegian justice system, in their treatment of Breivik, is demonstrating how justice can overcome terror; through their legal system they are dealing with this blight on their society. With a prison sentence as the likely outcome, Breivik will be incarcerated and removed from Norwegian society.
This week’s Torah portion may offer a further insight for dealing with problems in a society. The most prominent issue in the double portion of Tazria-Metzora is the disease of tzaraat, affecting people as a skin complaint, their clothes and their homes. It is strange to think about a disease which can afflict people, clothes and buildings.
Perhaps in this way rather than a literal disease, we should read about tzaraat as being symbolic of diseases which afflict society; examples may be prejudice, bigotry, intolerance, amongst others. In this way buildings represent the way in which the structures and institutions of a society are not immune to these afflictions.
The instructions for dealing with tzaraat are therefore instructive about how we should deal with these problems in society. First the problem has to be verbalized, ‘the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house”’ (Leviticus 14:35). Then it must be isolated; the house would be cleared so that nothing else would become infected by the disease, and it would then be quarantined for seven days (Leviticus 14:36, 38). And finally the disease is scrapped away, and the infected stones are removed, and replaced with new clean ones (Leviticus 14:40-42). Dealing with problems in society we have to identify them and admit to them, we then need to isolate them, so that they cannot spread, and then the negative elements are removed, so that the society can be cleansed.
However, it is important to remain alert to the disease and the potential for a future outbreak. And if the tzaraat returns to the house then it is unclean and it ‘shall be torn down – its stones and timber and all the coating of the house – and taken to an unclean place outside of the city’ (Leviticus 14:45).
In Norway, Breivik is the tzaraat affecting the society, and through the judicial process, instead of a priesthood, the affliction is being separated from the society. The lesson of our Torah portion is that we must always be alert to outbreaks of tzaraat in our society, we must be prepared to fight against them, and we must ensure that they are not allowed to spread and affect others.