The double portions of Tazria and Metzora continue the Torah’s discussion of ritual impurities. Tzara’at, often translated as leprosy, is a plague that can afflict people’s skin, their clothing, or even their homes. If someone suspects tzara’at, a priest is summoned, and after judging various signs determines whether the person or object is tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure).
Whenever I read this Torah portion, it makes me think about how we deal with illness. Skin diseases are visible, and thus we can imagine how people presenting with leprosy must have been so easily and quickly scorned, feared, reviled, and shunned. Serious illnesses today are often less visible, and also carry the weight of far less stigma. Nobody whispers the word cancer anymore. We know it is not contagious, and we rush to be supportive of our friends, family, and community members who suffer.
Rabbi Sara Davidson Berman pointed out in her beautiful d’var Torah on this portion that the term “leper” is used today to describe anyone who is ostracized. “Who are the lepers in today’s society?” she asks. “Those with mental illness.” In times of old, our sages questioned what moral failing had caused people to come down with leprosy. Today too, mental illness is so often viewed as a personal, moral failure. Those who commit suicide are said to be “selfish.” Most people do not consider a death from suicide to be one from a disease – mental illness. Suicide is not a personal failing. It is a medical one.
Our rabbis taught that the disease of tzara’at was caused by “motzi shem ra” – spreading a bad name, or gossip. I would take the concept of spreading a bad name further. Through the misnaming or misunderstanding of mental illness as a personal failing, we add to its misery and turn symptoms into shame. A few weeks ago, a young songwriter in a facebook group spoke in a live video about her struggles with depression. I was alarmed for her, thinking about the shame and stigma that could potentially now follow her career. But almost immediately afterwards, I thought about how truly brave she was. She is perfectly aware that mental illness comes with this stigma, but she also knows that only by discussing it as a disease, will we move away from looking at it through a lens of motzi shem ra – gossip, and instead approach it with compassion, understanding, and love.