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Wrapping the Bandages

My paternal grandparents came through Ellis Island around 1920. My Grandma Gussie (z”l) was 16, afraid of the journey, so she had her fortune told by a Gypsie before departure for reassurance. Crammed on a boat like so many others, she arrived in a strange place, greeted by Lady Liberty. When Ellis Island became part of liberty park, before it became the beautiful museum it is now (1990) I visited this cavernous, dark, ghost-like building with them. “So many were turned away,” they told me, “if they had a rash, or bald patches on their heads” Probably ringworm, poverty made soap and water dear. A fungus: contagious to be sure, but definitely not life-threatening. The fear of contagion that sent people back on that boat after so much effort to enter, surely was also a fear of poverty and alien cultures, and the unseen microbe. Not much has changed. We think we’re so savvy and civilized, until an infection rears its head. We need other people, and delight in them, so we gather together in larger and larger groups. We send our kids to daycare, school and camp, gather in stadiums, shopping malls, cities. We travel for vacation, business, and war, and our food travels too. With us come invisible microbes. The Spanish flu killed 25 million in 1918, a virus mutated from a pig farm in Tennessee, most likely, spread by the war. HIV virus likely existed in rural Africa for 100 years, until urbanization and travel turned the virus pandemic. The fear, blame, isolation of even child-victims of this disease  was akin to that of the middle ages, hard to believe, unless you were there… I was. Remember Ryan White?
This week the Torah portion gives us a window into how illness and contagion were handled in ancient times, perhaps there’s something to learn today. Illness that appeared as a rash on the skin and hair was called Tzara-at, often translated as leprosy. The person in the community asked to reach out to the patient, and when healed to return him or her to the community is a spiritual leader, the priest. In today’s society, and in medicine, we separate body from, and ignore the soul, perhaps ignoring a key part of healing. And, as Ryan and so many other stories show, we lack a clear path to return to society. In ancient times, the pathway back was to offer a sacrifice, and in one interesting verse, 14:14 of Leviticus, the priest would mark the patient with a drop of blood on the right ear, thumb and big toe, which is the same ritual as in ordaining the priest! it’s reminiscent of the blood of rebirth perhaps, with the right ear attuned, the hand doing deeds, and the foot “walking the walk”. In truth, many who recover from life threatening illness often feel they’ve been given a second chance, feel more intensely the gift of the moments of their lives. Now, I don’t want to go back to those times, lives were short, and blaming illness on moral failings is certainly problematic. I’m just suggesting there’s something valuable we can annex as patients or physicians: seeing the whole patient as one with spiritual needs, essential to healing. Seeing health care as a holy profession. In the Talmud there is a conversation between Rabbi Joshua with the prophet Eliyahu. He asks the prophet “where is the Messiah?” Elijah replies: “at the city gates” “What is he doing there”, asks Joshua. “He is changing the bandages of the lepers, one by one” “When will he come?” (to bring world peace) The reply is” Today, if we are ready to listen.”
The song I offer today is Cantor Leon Sher’s beautiful “Heal us Now” performed here by the plaintive voices of the teens of Hazamir.

Statue of Liberty


Comments on: "Wrapping the Bandages" (1)

  1. Steve Kessler said:

    May it be so. And so, I pray daily for God to help heal my soul, that I may help in the healing of others. We join with Hashem in TIkkun Olam, in our encounters with others, in our encounters with the world, in each there is the opportunity for healing. So I believe.

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