13:5 And on the seventh day, the kohen shall see him. And, behold! the lesion has remained the same in its appearance; the lesion has not spread on the skin. So the kohen shall quarantine him for seven days a second time.
What are we to make of these texts? One way is to ask: how is this relevant in every place and every time? In other words, now that the Temple is destroyed and there is no way to purify oneself, nor are the priests to do the rite, why do we care? Why do we still read this and torture rabbis by forcing them to preach on this?
One answer is found in the work of the early nineteenth century Hassidic Master, Mordecai Yosef Lainer of Izbica. Rabbi Lainer said that the priest, the Kohen, mentioned in the Torah is not only a Temple professional, but is the aspect of discernment that is present in each of us in potential. It is through service and devotion that we can actualize this potent ability of discernment which is called the Kohen.
One troubling thing in this passage is that the Rabbis believed the skin disease was a sign and symptom of the moral ailments of gossip and slander. While linking them together can be troubling to us, from our perspective today it suggests that when our “Kohen sensitivity” is truly discerning, we too will be able to recognize the difference between a physical, outer condition and what might be the injury or the hurt that is deeper within a person – and to understand how best to help.
Thinking of what the Kohen does – identifying people in need, truly determining what is wrong, and seeking to remedy it, can lead us to radically transform the way that we live in the world. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that most people are half asleep and half awake. That is, most of us proceed through life without actually paying attention to the ramifications of our actions. Thinking about the current conditions in the world, we can see how dangerous this can be – stand to close, go out without a mask, think only of yourself, and you can seriously injure people nowadays. The way I decide to act can have unintended consequences for other people who live in my city. In order to be fully awake I must attempt to be conscious to the fact that my actions – where I stand, what I wear, or what I buy, how I drive, how I vote - affect others (whom I do not know) in profound ways. Being awake is the first step to creating a just world.
When, stuck at home, I recognize there are others suffering even more severely than I am, I must train myself to let my Kohen reach out in aid. To see that illness and infection are physical conditions but are not essentially part of that other person - that he or she too is a human being and part of my community. When I do this, I am taking the first small step toward a more just and righteous world.