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.

Mystics of the Kabbalah often describe God as present in every human being. To respect the Divine Image, requires that we treat our fellow beings with acts of compassion and love. Martin Buber always taught how God is triangulated in every interpersonal relationship. The 18th century English poet and artist William Blake portrays the suffering face of Job and God has sharing the same countenance. Thus, it is in the human face where the Divine converges with the human soul.

So where is the Messiah to be found? He is there bandaging the lepers—much like the international community is bandaging the wounded of Haiti.



[1] It  that the statement, ‘Should I be needed, I must not delay” disrupts the flow of the discussion sounds like a non sequitur and detracts from the original teaching of the Aggada. Surely, the Messiah is already doing his job by helping the lepers bandage their wounds! Why disrupt the story with what the Messiah is allegedly “thinking”? If one did not know better, this passage sounds  like a red-herring; perhaps the Sages feared that people might antedate this parable to the ministry of Jesus, whose kindness toward the lepers set him apart as a compassionate leader who broke many of the social and religious barriers by treating them respectfully(Luke  5:12-16; 17:11-19). Indeed, maybe the original wording of the Talmudic story suggests that every human being must do his or her part in healing the wounded and marginalized people of society.

I discussed this interpretation with my good friend Professor Marvin Wilson for almost two hours this evening and he agrees with my deconstructive reading of the Talmudic text.

[2] In Midrash of Vyikra Rabba 16:3 records some of the laws that continued the policy of ostracizing even after the Temple was destroyed–despite the fact that none of these laws were ritually relevant.

R. Johanan and R. Simeon b. Lakish [gave rulings]. R. Johanan said: It is prohibited to go four cubits to the east of a leper.R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Even a hundred cubits. They did not really differ; the one who said four cubits referred to a time when there is no wind blowing, whereas the one who said [not even] a hundred cubits, referred to a time when a wind is blowing. R. Meir would not eat eggs that came from an alley of lepers. R. Ammi and R. Assi would not enter a leper’s alley. Resh Lakish, when he saw one of them in the city, threw stones towards him,1 and said: ‘ Go to your place, and do not defile other people,’ as R. Hiyya taught: He shall dwell alone (Lev. XIII, 46), means, he shall dwell by himself. R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon, when he saw one of them, hid himself from him, since it is written, THIS SHALL BE THE LAW OF THE LEPER (MEZORA’), i.e. one who utters false reports  (mozi [shem] ra’).

[3] BT Mo’ed Katan 5a.

[4] Ibid., 15a.

3 thoughts on “The Lepers’ Messiah (02/04/10)

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    The Joan Osborne song is very Christological, because Christianity felt it was humanizing an abstract God by identifying him with the humble, yet deified Jesus. (This is Paul’s doing, I believe). What this midrash represents is tzelem Elohim, not incarnation. God is not one of us; S/He is totally Other. And when we recognize the tzelem in the Other, we are acting in a Godly manner. Conversely, those who “don’t fear God” such as the Amalekites and Sodomians don’t protect the Other. This also relates to the injunction not to oppress the Stranger (or convert) since we were strangers in Egypt.

  2. admin says:

    I agree with you, but I would add that Judaism differs from Christianity in that the latter views Jesus as the supreme Christian manifestation of God in the flesh.

    Judaism, on the other hand, regards every human being as a manifestation of God’s Presence and Reality. Jewish mystics frequently define “Elohanu” as derived from “el,” (power or strength), i.e., Our God is our Vitality. However, God is also Wholly Other as well.

    I am not sure about the Osborne spin of your interpretation; she seems to intimate that God is incarnated in every person, which reflects more of a Jewish idea rather than a Christian. However, I could be reading more into her song than what the singer really meant to imply.

  3. admin says:

    Hi, I decided to remove the Joane Osborne material, but I will post it here:

    Whenever I read this passage, I think about a song a good friend mine brought to my attention. I believe that this song captures the theological message of the Talmud. Songwriter Eric Brazillian wrote a song that Joane Osborne later popularized: “What If God Were One of Us.” In the interest of brevity and clarity, I will cite only those stanzas that are directly relevant to this Talmudic passage:

    If God had a name, what would it be
    And would you call it to his face
    If you were faced with him in all his glory
    What would you ask if you had just one question . . .

    What if God was one of us
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home . . .

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