Wednesday, 29 April 2020
Reading the Torah portion this last shabbat, Tazria/M'tzorah, I was struck by the vocabulary used by some of the contemporary English translations. "If the mark or spot in the skin looks like tzara'at", the text roughly says, "the priest is to his'giyr the affected person for seven days" (Vayikra 13:4).
The English alternatives offered for the verb his'giyr sound uncannily familiar in these days. The NJPS version proposes 'isolate' as does the NKJV; the ESV has the somewhat American 'shut up', perhaps matching the NRSV 'confine'; the NLT gives us 'quarantine'.
While the rights and wrongs of the lockdown policy being enforced by most western countries - with the notable exception of Sweden - are being argued each day as I write and will, no doubt, be argued for the next ten to twenty years while the world economies try to recover from the crash, it is the choice of words that pulls me up short.
The words 'isolate', 'shut up', 'quarantine' ring large bells with the way people are feeling in these days: confined to their homes, unable to meet, social distancing - which we may have to continue observing for months to come. These are oppressive words, speaking of the way a person is cut off from friends, family and the wider society - now because of CoronaVirus, then because of a skin disease called tzara'at. Although in the past this was translated 'leprousy', because of some of its physical appearances looked like Hansen's Disease, there is an almost complete mismatch of symptoms and no modern doctor would recognise it as leprousy today. Neverthless, the isolation techniques used to try and control the spread of leprousy - principally the quarantining of sufferes in so-called leper colonies - see a modern equivalent in the isolating of households and family groups now being used to control, or at least slow down, the spread of CoronaVirus.
While we are shut up in our homes, we would do well to ponder the similality between our situation and that of tzara'at sufferers. Tzara'at is considered by the Jewish tradition to be a divinely imposed punishment for lashon hara, literally, evil speech. This covers things like gossip, lies, malicious talk, rumour-mongering and the like. Those who were guilty of these offences were punished first by a visible mark or sign, then by a period of isolation or quarantine and, finally, by being expelled from the camp. Sensory deprivation is known to drive people mad; social deprivation is today causing suicide and long-term mental illness.
I am, of course, not making a direct connection between the biblical tzara'at and the currnet CoronaVirus pandemic. Nor am I suggesting that CoronoaVirus is some form of divine punishment for real or imaginary evils in society - although there are certainly plenty of real ones around. I am simply suggesting that as we constantly talk and argue about the processes of isolation and quarantine, we might let the way we feel about being confined help us to remember to be careful about what we choose to say about and to other people.