Atonement and healing


One of my teachers used to say that the true test of a “darshan — a preacher or master of midrash, was how he dealt with this week’s Torah portion known as Tazria-Metzora. This parasha is taken from the Book of Leviticus Chapters 12-15. The portion describes the responsibility of the Levitical priests in treating bodily discharges, skin eruptions and scaling, and mildew on the walls of houses. It is a wondrous mixture of guilt and atonement, sacrifice and empirical observations of actual symptoms of disease and some practical — as well as spiritual — cures.

In Leviticus, cures and atonement were inseparable and could only be sought from priests in charge of the sacrifices in the sanctuary. Expensive animals were expected to be purchased and offered up as acts of atonement, in order to alleviate the sin condition which, according to the Torah, was the cause of the disease. But what if the person with the disease could not afford to sacrifice lambs and goats? Was he left to die because he could not afford the proper sacrificial animals?

Our Torah portion records a much less expensive option — birds– which may be sacrificed instead of sheep.

The option for birds is stated matter-of-factly. There does not seem to be any shame attached to the less expensive sacrifice.

One might conclude that 3,000 years ago, there was a two-tiered health system, one for the rich and one for the poor. A more likely conclusion would be that people were supposed to sacrifice according to their capability.

If the reason for the affliction was some guilty act performed by the sufferer, it would not be seemly for a wealthy person to seek atonement on the cheap. At the same time, a poor person suffering from a disease should not be denied God’s atonement because he cannot afford to do it in a certain way.

In our own day, atonement is to be sought, not through animal sacrifices but through deeds of loving kindness and tzedaka. Cures to disease are to be sought in the corridors of medical research.

Healing, however, is to be found in the compassion of the loving heart.

Rabbi Mark Shook is senior rabbi at Temple Israel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.