When we think of the duties of the ancient Israelite High Priest, his once-a-year entrance into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur seems to be by far the hardest. But, I beg to differ. The private walk to meet with the ailing leper from this week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, was no doubt by far harder. As described in the fourteenth chapter of Leviticus, the High Priest must “go outside the camp, look, and behold the healing of the one suffering from tzaruah” (a skin ailment often labeled as leprosy).
Here with little in the way of protection, or fanfare, he must be present with sickness and death. In addition to his many duties as a religious leader and exemplar of proper behavior, the High Priest was also a healer. It was in the capacity that he was charged with the mitzvah of Birkat Cholim, visiting the sick. It was also in this capacity that he truly risked his life for the sake of his community.
To explain, I would like to share a story Susannah Heschel shared about her great grandfather the Apter Rebbe, Avraham Yeshua Heschel. This was a story her father, Abraham Joshuah Heschel, shared many times in his life, and it was the story she chose to close her talk with last week at the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Cincinnati. The Apter Rebbe for sitting with the suffering and alleviating their pain. One time, someone asked him how he could stand so many sad stories. He replied that each time he spoke to someone suffering it left a scar on his own heart.
On Yom Kippur, he would then approach the Almighty and show God these scars, begging not only for his own heart to be healed, but all of those who were crying out in pain. Abraham Joshuah Heschel, like his grandfather before him, believed the role of the prophet or priest was to enter into the world of sadness, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
As he wrote in an essay on “Religion and Race” in 1963: “the prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others.” But, he believed this sadness could not just be contained in the leader, but must be shared by all. He continued in the same essay, “Let there be a grain of prophet in every man!” In this way, each of us becomes like Aaron the High Priest in this week’s Torah portion, visiting with the tzaruah, helping them return to the community at large.