The Lepers’ Messiah (02/04/10)

The Sages often wondered when and where the Messiah would appear. Despite their reticence to make messianic predictions, the rabbis nevertheless believed that his coming remains an eternal possibility. As for the time when this consummation was to take place, it was generally held to depend on the degree of progress men will have achieved in their moral development.

This point is well illustrated in the well-known Talmudic parable. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi met Elijah standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s tomb.… He then said to him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ ‘Go and ask him’ was the reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’—’At the entrance of the city.’ And how shall I recognize him? — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers, untying and rebandaging their wounds, while thinking, ‘Should I be needed, I must not delay.’ …[1]

So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘Peace be upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘Peace be upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When will thou come, Master?’ asked he. ‘Today’ was his answer.” When the Messiah failed to appear that day, a deeply disappointed Rabbi Joshua returned to Elijah with the complaint: “He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come today, but has not!” Elijah then enlightened him that the Messiah had really quoted Scripture (Ps. 95:7): “Today, if ye hearken to His voice” (Sanhedrin 98a).

One might wonder: Why wasn’t the Messiah worried about ritual impurity? One exposition found in the commentaries suggests that the Messiah is among those afflicted with leprosy (cf. Isa. 53:4); while this is a plausible exposition, I prefer the image of the Messiah ministering to the lepers. The answer to the question is even more remarkable when considering how the ancients marginalized the lepers.

In the days of the Temple, lepers lived outside the cities in special huts, where they all congregated for support. People feared any kind of physical contact with them for fear of contagion, or because of the possibility they might become ritually contaminated.

It was not uncommon for children and adults to throw stones at the lepers because they were the outcasts of ancient society.[2] Anytime a person merely approached a leper, the leper had to say, “Unclean!” in order to avoid contact. One could only imagine the havoc this caused in the leper’s family. The mere appearance of a leper on the street or in a neighborhood was meant that everyone had to avoid him.[3] No one could even salute him; his bed was to be low, inclining towards the ground.[4] If he even put his head into a home, that home or building became ritually contaminated. No less a distance than four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper; or, if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient. For all practical purposes, a leper was like a walking dead man.

Yet, the Messiah of our story seems as though he could care less about ritual impurity; to him, caring for the lepers is a supreme ethical demand that transcends ritual laws.

Learning to heal the lepers—just like the Messiah

The Messiah’s response is intriguing. Redemption will not occur tomorrow, but today when we emulate his acts of selfless love; messianic redemption comes when we bandage the wounds of those suffering in the world around us. It seems as though the Talmud is suggesting, we have a personal role to play in redeeming the human condition. Redemption comes by living a redemptive life.

Bandaging the open wounds of the lepers, one open sore at a time, is the only viable human response to preparing the world for ultimate redemption. This process begins with treating the forlorn and abandoned members such as the lepers, or the AIDS victims, or anyone with a terrible disease with prayer, consideration, kindness and compassion— regardless of the disease.

The Talmud relates a story that is consistent with the ethos of the Messiah passage mentioned above. “R. Helbo was once sick. But none visited him. The Sage rebuked the scholars, saying, ‘Did it not once happen that one of R. Akiba’s disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So R. Akiba personally entered his student’s house to visit him, and upon finding the chamber neglected, Rabbi Akiba instructed his students to clean up the home, and the sick student soon recovered. Thankfully, the student exclaimed, ‘My master—you have revived me!’ R. Akiba began his very next lecture with the statement, ‘Anyone who fails to visit the sick is like a shedder of blood’” (Nedarim 40a). The moral of the story stresses the importance of mutual-aid and responsibility. Simply put, we are our “brother’s keeper.

The French Jewish philosopher Emanual Lévinas stresses how God’s face is mirrored in the face of the ordinary people we encounter; when we see the beggar on the street asking for us to help, God’s face is present in the face of those struggling just to survive–one day at a time. Kabbalists sometimes describe the Shekhinah (the maternal aspect of the Divine) as always present among those who experience pain and loss. Jewish tradition teaches us that we become most God-like when we outflow compassion to a suffering world. Continue reading “The Lepers’ Messiah (02/04/10)”