Why Do We Exile People?
The main event of this Torah portion is tzaraat, a mysterious skin affliction that seems to be related to spreading gossip or talking evil (lashon hara). It goes like this: you talk bad, you get some gross white and pink spots on you, and you get exiled. After you’re healed, you get to come back to the community.
The world is a scary place if you are an ancient Hebrew: you have to survive against all the elements of nature, the waring tribes around you, and for unknown reasons, the human body does sick things. How would you deal with that? How would you handle seeing the majority of children die by age ten? How would you be able to live with the knowledge that any tiny skin blemish, cough, or injury could destroy an entire community?
You would sequester: you would hide people away so that the rest of the community could be safe from whatever it is that they have.
If the Hebrews were really as “primitive” as some people think, they would have locked people up and thrown away the proverbial key. But read between the lines: a circumcised baby, a once-pregnant woman and a person with tzaraat were welcomed back with open arms, once their ritual period of removal was over.
So many physical afflictions carry stigma: physical handicaps, developmental disabilities, mental illness, AIDS and sexually transmitted infections to name a few. As a society, we tend to throw away people with these problems. Many would argue that criminality should be looked at as an illness, and people who commit crimes are locked away and have the worst problem integrating back into society.
Perhaps we need to learn something from our spiritual ancestors: yes, there is a time and place for removal. But more importantly, we need to work on bringing people back in. Who’s primitive now?