Look Before Labeling: The Levitical Emphasis on Examination

fink-eye_20141105_027_webWe moderns like to think of ourselves as highly rational people who put forethought into what we do and say. Of course, this self-perception isn’t always necessarily borne out by the facts. How often have we thought about what we want to eat before checking what’s in the fridge? How many people withdraw money from an ATM before checking their available balance? How many times have you pulled out of a parking spot before looking to see if it was safe to do? We tend to be driven by our drives. Discernment and deliberation don’t necessarily proceed decision making. Despite our capacity for critical judgement we often rely on instinct and intuition as our primary source of guidance. If someone has a black eye, then somebody must have punched them. If a person who typically dresses in casual attire shows up to work in a suit, then somebody must have died. If an officer pulls us over, then it must be for speeding.

Tazria, This week’s Torah portion taken from Leviticus 12-13 takes on the thankless task of telling us to think first and draw conclusions later. Over and over again Leviticus orders the priests to follow procedure before making pronouncements. They cannot declare someone to be suffering from tzara’at, leprosy, until they have thoroughly completed the process of checking them. The text is ahead of its time in the emphasis it places on protecting people’s privacy and preventing widespread panic. The average citizen is not entitled to make an official diagnosis. The responsibility of the people at large is to report the symptoms of tza’ra’at to the appropriate person, namely the priests. The priest cannot declare that someone has tza’ra’at until they have been examined. The fact that someone has symptoms of tza’ra’at should not necessarily be taken to mean that they actually have the condition itself. The priest has the right and the responsibility to quarantine and reexamine those presenting these symptoms rather than immediately pronouncing them to be afflicted with leprosy

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days. And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague stay in its appearance, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more. And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague be dim, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is a scab; and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. But if the scab spread abroad in the skin, after that he hath shown himself to the priest for his cleansing, he shall show himself to the priest again. And the priest shall look, and, behold, if the scab be spread in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is leprosy.(Lev. 13:2-8).

Even after closer examination, Tazria may not be the most exciting Torah portion. None-the-less this technical and exacting passage calls us to remember an important lessons about civil society. Equality does not mean that everyone is an expert in everything. Let’s try to limit ourselves to the conclusions we’re actually qualified to make. Procedure may very well confirm what we already suspect but speculation is no substitute for investigation. Even when certain facts are verified the task of examination isn’t over and done, case closed. Examination is not merely an act or a process it’s a value, a discipline that must be practiced with seriousness and sincerity.

It is worth noting that the Hebrew root, repeated throughout this particular passage, r-a-h, meaning “to see, look at or look into”, is rendered by English speaking translators as “examine, check, or inspect.” Both in Hebrew and in English to see something is to understand, comprehend, or appreciate something. The gift of sight is a faculty subject to genetics. We can’t claim credit for having 20/20 vision nor should we interpret 20/200 as a form of punishment. Sight, by in large, is something we possess to one degree or another. Looking is very different. Looking requires an act of will, a deliberate choice to use our ability to see. Looking is something we choose or don’t chose to do. It doesn’t matter how good our sight is if we don’t take the time or the responsibility to look.

On this Sabbath that would have been my father’s 81st birthday, I am reminded of his contributions to the field of Neuro-Ophthalmology, his passion for looking and seeing. He loved to improve people’s sight, but he equally valued the importance of teaching his students, residents, fellows, interns and children what to look for and how to look.1972_0

May we ever be mindful of the example of modern medicine and the wisdom of Leviticus that teaches us to look before we label, assess before we act, and examine before we expound. May this be our blessing. 

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