Parashat Tazria-Metzora deals famously with the disease known as tzaraat, translated (not entirely accurately) as leprosy. The image of the isolated leper is a familiar one, but the Torah insists that the reintegration is the ideal. No one should be separated forever, and it is upon us to go to the margins of society to reach out to those who have been cast off--even if for good reason--to welcome them back to the whole the moment they're ready to return.
Today … If You Will Hear His Voice
There are many legends told about the third-century Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. He is said to have conversed with the Angel of Death and lived to share the wisdom he discovered (BT Berachot 51a). He was offered a glimpse of the gates of hell, wherein he witnessed the horrific torments of the wicked (The Book of Legends 570:312, which cites Beit Hamidrash 1:147-149). And he was afforded a view of the world to come, entering the Garden of Eden without the taste of death (BT Ketubot 77b and Derech Eretz Zuta 1). Joshua ben Levi dedicated his life to the study of Torah, was scrupulously honest and humble, and sought always to see the best in every single person. It’s no wonder, then, that the Mishnah—the first major work of Rabbinic scholarship—concludes with his teaching (M. Uktzin 3:12).
On more than one occasion, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi is said to have met Elijah the Prophet. Elijah appears throughout Jewish literature as a source of heavenly wisdom, and our tradition views him as the one who will announce the coming of the messiah. The most challenging—and the most inspirational—of these encounters is narrated in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a).
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah, “When will the messiah come?” Elijah replied, “Go ask him yourself.” “And where does he dwell?” asked Joshua. “At the entrance of Rome,” Elijah replied. “And by what sign will I recognize him?” Joshua asked. And Elijah answered, “He is sitting among the poor lepers. All of them untie their bandages at once and replace them together, but the messiah unties and replaces his bandages one by one. For he thinks, ‘If I should be wanted, I must not be delayed.’”
So, Rabbi Joshua went and greeted the messiah at the entrance of Rome. “Shalom alechah, rabi umori”—peace be upon you, my master and teacher—he said. “Peace be upon you, O son of Levi,” the messiah replied.
“When will you come, master?” Joshua asked. And the messiah said, “Today.”
[At this point, Joshua returns to the land of Israel—and clearly the messiah has not come.] He returned to Elijah and said, “The messiah lied to me! He said he would come ‘today,’ but he did not come.” Elijah answered him, “This is what he said to you: ‘Today … if you will hear his voice’ (Psalm 95:7).”
Joshua ben Levi is changed forever through this miraculous encounter. It’s not every day that you get to speak with Elijah the Prophet; how much more special a chance to visit with the messiah himself! And such encouraging news: The messiah is ready at a moment’s notice to redeem the world. But the messiah will come only if we are ready to heed the prophetic message of justice and truth.
This midrash conveys more than the generic lesson that we must do good to earn redemption. It also illustrates specifically how we might fulfill this sacred task: namely, by going out among the lepers, the most isolated and ignored members of society.
This is also the theme of this week’s Torah portion, in which we read of the disease known as tzaraat and how our ancient ancestors responded to those who contracted it. Tzaraat was an affliction that affected homes, garments, and, most of all, people. It was characterized by discoloration or deformity and usually resulted in its host being declared impure. The Greek term for tzaraat is λέπρα, from which we get the English word “leprosy.” However, in the bible, both tzaraat and λέπρα referred to a wide range of diseases—not only leprosy—including psoriasis, lupus, and ringworm.
And so we read, זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה לְכָל-נֶגַע הַצָּרַעַת, “This is the Torah for all varieties of the affliction tzaraat” (Lev. 14:54). First, an irregularity appears, such as a skin rash that has turned white or scaly. A priest is called to make an examination, and if he can easily tell that it’s just a rash, the person remains pure. If there’s some doubt as to whether the skin is affected by tzaraat, then the individual is quarantined outside the camp for seven days. At the end of seven days, the priest goes out to them and makes another assessment. If the discoloration hasn’t spread, the person is declared pure—it is just a rash. But if it’s gotten worse, the person is declared impure.
If someone manifests tzaraat, they are forced to live alone outside the camp (Lev. 13:46). This ostracization is serious. Some interpretations of tzaraat understand the disease to be both painful and contagious, so the sick person must undergo a quarantine to protect the community. Alternatively, the Rabbis classically understood tzaraat as a manifestation of wicked behavior, specifically evil speech. They taught that even one who is physically healthy can cause considerable harm to society through gossip and slander, so they, too, are banished from the camp. One way or another—physically or morally--tzaraat makes you an outcast.
Were the story to end there, the Torah would be no better than the Romans ignoring the lepers at their gate. But our text continues:
זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ, This shall be the Torah of one who has tzaraat in the day of his purification. He shall be brought to the priest; and the priest shall go out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the affliction of tzaraat is healed [then the priest shall personally purify him] (Lev. 14:2-3).
In other words, rehabilitation is possible once one has healed from one’s sickness or repented from one’s wrongdoing. Moreover, the community doesn’t just sit and wait for the healed individual to come back on their own. The influential 14th-century rabbi Jacob ben Asher emphasized the phrase “and the priest shall go out of the camp,” teaching that it is the priest’s sacred duty to “come toward him to welcome him back” (Tur HaAroch 14:2:1). Not only is reintegration into society the preferred ideal, but the priests themselves are the ones dedicated to going out to the afflicted in order to bring them back in. Whether continually checking on those on the margins whose status is unknown or reaching out to individuals who sincerely seek to return, the priests model the ultimate vision of a society in which everyone—even those once rightly turned away—is welcome.
Which brings us back to Joshua ben Levi. He saw firsthand that the messiah himself sat among the lepers. Only by swallowing his discomfort and forcing himself to face their humanity—spending long enough with the afflicted to know who wraps their bandages all at once and who treats one bandage at a time—can Joshua succeed in finding the messiah.
Now we might say that he had a bit of extra help, that Elijah the Prophet told him point-blank that the messiah was at the gate of Rome. But consider a second story of Joshua ben Levi, far less legendary, in which Joshua demonstrates his willingness to be among the outcast even when they are not redeemers.
Another debilitating disease known to the Rabbis was was called ra’atan, a hideous malady best known for the flies that infest the infected. We read in the Talmud (Ketubot 77b):
Rabbi Yoḥanan would announce: Be careful of the flies found on those afflicted with ra’atan. Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from their direction. Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra’atan, and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra’atan lived.
However, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi would attach himself to them and study Torah with them.
This is what we are called to do. To seek out those in our society most maligned, most ignored, most isolated and to engage with them, to share with them what we hold most dear and to be ready at a moment’s notice to welcome them into our open arms.
This is what it means to be a “nation of priests,” as God calls us before giving us the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:6). We are to follow the example of the priests in this week’s Torah portion, to make it our habit to uphold the sacred duty of reaching out toward one another.
In each of our communities, there are outcasts, those who have been turned away because of one perceived impurity or another. It may be perfectly correct that they have been separated; they may well have deserved it. But this separation is always to be seen as temporary, as a less-than-ideal situation that should be fixed as soon as possible. As Jews, we bear the message that each of us should regularly go out to those who are cast out, to check on them in the hopes that they are ready to return to the full community, and to be ready to receive them when they are.
Tradition teaches that a messiah is born every generation, but no one, not even the chosen one, knows who the messiah is. That’s why we invite Elijah to the naming of every newborn so the two might become acquainted just in case. And that’s why we are taught always to treat one another as if we were facing the messiah – because who knows? We might be.
This can be among the most challenging expectations of our tradition, to regard as sacred those whom our peers have deemed dangerous. But Joshua ben Levi proved it was possible. None of us will be able to succeed all the time, but in reminding ourselves of this most noble ideal, perhaps, in working together and for a very long time, we might bring nearer the day when all in the world see one another not with suspicion but with longing; not with fear but with love.
 Some versions include—and others omit—the word רומי, Rome. The standard Talmud text omits it, though, to take one example, the midrashic collection Tanna d’vei Eliyahu Zuta includes it (see here).
 See entry for λέπρα in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Frederick William Danker), p. 592.
 “The important part of the Torah’s message is that the victim of tzaraat who has now been cured does not have to come the priest, but the priest comes toward him to welcome him back to the fold” (Tur HaAroch). See also 17th-century Kli Yakar’s comment: “He is not brought to the priest but rather the priest goes out to him.” Both are comments on Lev. 14:2.
 Translation slightly modified from sefaria.org (see here).
 According to Tuv HaAaretz (38a) of Rabbi Natan Shapira (1585–1633). See Robert Levine’s There is No Messiah and You’re It p. 77.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”