Rabbi Batsheva Appel
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, in speaking about the difference of opinion between Hillel and Shammai, says that each of us interprets the Torah according to our nature. If we are of a merciful nature, then everything is ritually pure, permissible, and kosher according to our understanding. If our nature emphasizes strength, we see everything as ritually impure, forbidden and unfit according to our understanding.
I think of that difference as I read about skin conditions in Leviticus. We think of these descriptions of skin conditions as a dermatology text. When we read it, we either turn away or are absorbed in the details and either way, we do not see the whole person. But Leviticus is not a text for physicians to use to diagnose and treat skin conditions, it is a text for the priests to use in determining the status of the people that they serve. Based on what is said next a person’s ritual status changes, affecting what they are permitted to do, where they live, and whether they might be isolated from everyone.
How difficult it must be to bear that responsibility, to know that based on a simple determination, based on the next words said, a person asking for help could be labeled and excluded. I would like to think that the priests were of a merciful nature, that they saw the whole person and not just the condition. I understand that they were required to tell the truth, but whenever there was any leeway, I hope that they found a way to keep the people in the camp, with their families, with their community. And when people were removed from the community, I hope that they found ways to quickly bring them back.
Sometimes we forget how much rests on the words that we say, even in things that seem mundane, and I hope that we are of a merciful nature. There are times when we focus on one thing and do not see the whole person, when we do not see how much what we do and say has the power to label and exclude them. We can still tell the truth, but we can always shape how we tell the truth with mercy.