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Leadership Lessons from Biblical Teachings on Leprosy

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-15:33

In this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, we see Aaron and his sons in their priestly role as tribal medicine men. Forget the fancy clothes and presiding over rituals and eating yummy offerings. Now, it’s down to the nitty-gritty, time to get their hands dirty, time to be with the people when they are ill and shepherd them through the healing process and reintegration into the community.

Following a discussion regarding purification after childbirth, the remaining chapters of Tazria focus on a broad variety of skin eruptions and afflictions, their diagnosis and treatment. It is the priest who has the unenviable job of examining discolored and scaly patches of skin and determining when it is safe for a person to be restored to the community.

Being a leader may appear to be a glamorous calling. Yet, as we read parshat Tazria, we learn that leadership requires subtle skills and much wisdom. The Torah instructs the priest that if he hears of a suspected case of tzaraat, the first thing he must do is to check it out. It is so easy and so tempting to be judgmental, and fear of illness could, especially, encourage erring on the side of immediately isolating the affected individual. The priest may not make a decision based on hearsay – he must see for himself. In this way, the priest leads by example, reminding each of us of the notorious nature of gossip. Only after he himself has discerned the facts, is he empowered to take action. The priest must evidence calm in the face of potential crisis, reassuring both the individual and the community by his caring and competent presence.  

 In their article “Leadership is in the Eyes of the Follower,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner cite honesty as THE leadership priority characteristic. As painful as it may be to hear that one is ill, that one must be separated from the community, the priest has to deliver this message with honesty and with compassion. In Leviticus 13:3, we read that the priest shall “see him.” Commentators understand this to mean that the priest must see the whole person, not just the illness, not just a case of tzaraat. The priest, the leader, must walk that delicate line between protecting the community and supporting the humanity of the sufferer in its totality. In this way, the priest is an example for each of us.

The priest continues to stay in touch with the person who is ill throughout the duration of the illness. The priest continues to visit, providing support and encouragement and hope for wellness. The priest provides the connection, the link, between the individual and the community, and it is the priest who is there when the affliction passes, to facilitate restoration and return.

Our ancestors struggled to understand the mysteries of sickness and health. Out of this struggle, they adopted a “blame the victim” approach, suggesting that tzaraat occurred as Divine punishment for the evil of lashon ha-ra, idle gossip. We reject the premise of illness as retribution, while acknowledging that, just as physical illness can be contagious and impact the well-being of the community, so, too, gossip can be harmful, and, indeed, dangerous, as it separates us from each other.

Today we look at the model of priestly leadership – compassionate, nonjudgmental, competent and caring – and we renew our own commitment to exemplify these principles in all aspects of our lives, as we relate to those who are ill on the physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual levels. We understand that isolation is not the way, that it is up to each of us, as a nation of priests, to act as leaders in the way that we dedicate ourselves to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, being forces for healing.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is a spiritual leader at Temple Chai.



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