Over the hill from the Jerusalem Theatre and across the street from the Hartman Institute is Hansen House, operated as a leprosarium from 1887 until the early 1920s. The hospital, abandoned for many years, has become a vibrant design and cultural centre with a public park, café, bar and observation tower. Of course, Bible scholars have long known that the King James translation of tzara’at as leprosy (Hansen’s disease), stemming from the Greek word lepra (meaning “scaly or rough skin”), is not the subject of our Torah portion. Still, there is a valuable lesson that we might learn from the Torah reading that has applicability for the approaching yom tov of Pesach.
Our personal histories are encoded in our bodies: our genetic legacy, childhood illnesses and adult activities, the miles we have walked, the hours we have slept, our sexual lives and gender identities are all embedded in us. This Torah portion is about structuring and spiritualizing our bodily experiences, in particular skin eruptions and genital fluids, through a process of separation and restoration – a mini-exile followed by rituals of release and restoration. The Torah seeks to use the body as a pathway to the transcendent, as Job stated, “Through my flesh, I will see God!”
This year, the Torah portion of Metzora is read on Shabbat ha-Gadol, as we intently and intensively move toward Pesach, a festival that situates spiritual life in the acts of cleaning and cooking. Telling the tale of exile and redemption, release and restoration, memory and migration, estrangement and compassion for the stranger, arises from the physical, whether historic or contemporary. Rather than seeing the physical as oppositional to the spiritual, we embrace the physical as rungs of a ladder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, by “doing the finite, one may perceive the infinite.”