ה֑וּא בָּדָ֣ד יֵשֵׁ֔ב מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה מֹושָׁבֹֽו – “He shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)
The dynamic of the Torah’s purity system involves separation from the camp followed by re-entry and renewed inclusion. Stepping out and stepping in.
The Midrash attaches a powerful and resonant verse to this dynamic, the dramatic words of the prophet Isaiah – shalom, shalom, larahok v’lakarov – “Peace, peace, to the far and to the near.” (Isaiah 57:19) Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Yudan in Rabbi Aha’s name: This is the leper who was far and has become close. (Vayikra Rabbah 16:9) Stepping out and stepping in.
Ordinarily we read the stepping out part of the process as punitive, unfair, and negative. In context, the Torah’s system excludes one suffering from scale disease in order to protect the larger community and its purity. The needs of the many trump the sensitivity of the individual. Hence our unease with the Torah’s system of purity in general and the rules that fill this week’s parasha in particular.
The Midrash points toward a different perspective. What positive good might the individual whose “dwelling shall be outside the camp” find in this experience? To put it in Isaiah’s language, what is the shalom – the wholeness or peace – that one might encounter when stepping out?
The Sefat Emet, R Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, pushes the point in a provocative direction. “There are some who attain wholeness by drawing near and others who do so by distance.” Wholeness can be attained, experienced, encountered, by distance! That’s a startling and liberating idea. Alienation as a path to holiness. Shalom larahok – Peace to the far. The Torah of the leper, says the Sefat Emet, involves learning from the experience of distance. Separation is not just a painful reality experienced by all of us at one time or another. It’s an opportunity for growth and renewal. The Sefat Emet’s punch line rings true: God’s Divinity is not to be found only in closeness.
In the course of our lives, we step out and back in over and over again. What do we learn from the experience of residing outside the camp? And do we bring that special brand of wholeness for the distant with us back into the camp upon our return? Perhaps that’s the Torah of the life journey on which we each embark.