In times of physical, social, and medical uncertainty, we can take steps to protect ourselves and promote recovery. At present, these steps include hand-washing, social distancing, and staying at home. The ancient Israelites also had ways to diagnosis and remedy illnesses, and they even practiced social distancing to ensure collective health. For the skin ailment known as tzara’at (צרעת), the priests would examine the patient to ascertain the right healing procedure (see Leviticus 13-14). While the prescriptions in Leviticus are for the sake of the body, Deuteronomy links tzara’at to the principle of setting one’s mind on the Lord. In this way, the Torah highlights the need to take care of our spiritual health alongside our physical wellbeing; meditation on Scripture and remembrance of God support the spirit, just as proper medical care supports the body.
According to Leviticus, the skin ailment of tzara’at (צרעת) necessitates priestly examination. If a spot on the skin “has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of one’s body, it is a case of tzara’at” (13:3). Those who exhibit possible symptoms of tzara’at are isolated, sometimes for a period of 14 days: “If the spot is white… but appears no deeper than the skin… the priest shall shut up the stricken person for seven days…. And if the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut up [the person] for another seven days” (13:4-5). In ancient Israel, the people knew the value of personal separation for the sake of health safety. Leviticus preserves a divine precedent for the kind of social-distancing that we can, and should, practice today.
Deuteronomy also highlights the importance of following the tzara’at instructions: “Take care (השׁמר; hishamer) in a case of tzara’at, that you observe diligently (לשׁמר מאד; lishmor meod), and do according to all that the Levitical priests shall direct you” (24:8). The Hebrew words for “take care” and “observe” come from שׁמר (shamar), which means to “keep” or “guard.” The charge to “take care” (השׁמר; hishamer) in this verse is the last of ten such instances in Deuteronomy—most of which remind readers to “take care” in their relationship with God. For example, Deuteronomy 6:12 reads, “Take care (השׁמר) lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Moses also tells his people to “take care” to preserve their knowledge of Torah: “Take care (השׁמר) lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God… by not keeping his commandments” (4:23; 8:11). The responsibility to “take care” also extends to one’s neighbors: “Take care (השׁמר) that you do not neglect the Levite… [or] your poor brother” (12:19; 15:9). Finally, at the end of all these declarations to “take care” in our relationships with God and others—bonds that Jesus puts at the very heart the Torah (see Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18)—Deuteronomy says to “take care” with skin ailments (24:8). Thus, the Torah uses the command to “take care” in order to connect spiritual practices (like Scripture study and remembrance of God and neighbor) with principles of bodily health, and thereby underscores the importance of both physical and theological care.