The Lessons of Isolation

Yael Eckstein  |  March 30, 2022

Elderly woman sitting in a chair under a plaid blanket and wearing mask

If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. — Leviticus 13:4

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Tazria, which means “conceived” from Leviticus 12:1-13:59.

One feature of life that has become familiar to many of us over the past two years is what we call in Israel bidud or “quarantine.” Having gone through quarantine myself, I can say that it was not a pleasant experience. But I learned a few things along the way.

For me, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of quarantine was that I was so dependent on other people. As a mother, I am used to being the one who looks after the needs of my family. And here I was — needing my husband and my kids to bring me food or anything else I may have needed from other parts of the house.

Then there was the obvious fact of the isolation itself. When you spend time alone, you come to appreciate the importance of everyday interactions with those around you, even with perfect strangers. While I wouldn’t recommend quarantine and have no interest in doing it again, the lessons that isolation taught me were valuable.

The Lessons of Isolation

In this week’s Torah portion, we see a biblical mandate for quarantine. A person who is afflicted with tzaraat, the skin disease commonly referred to as leprosy, needed to isolate from the camp of Israel. God instructed the priests, “The priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days” (Leviticus 13:4).

Aside from the medical reasons for this isolation, it’s actually appropriate that the person afflicted with tzaraat was separated from society. As I discussed yesterday, the rabbis taught that tzaraat was punishment for slander, gossip, and speaking ill of other people.

When people speak badly about others, they are motivated by a desire to marginalize the person they’re talking about. Gossip and slander cause deeper divisions and come from a desire to build oneself up by putting others down. How fitting it is that this person who engaged in harmful speech is now isolated.

Perhaps this was God’s plan to put the slanderer in a position to experience what it feels like to be separated and “unclean.” Maybe the purpose of this rule is to teach us to value inclusion in society and to build our sensitivity to others who may be otherwise marginalized and excluded.

When we are cut off from society, the lessons of isolation become clearer to us. We learn to appreciate how much we need everyone around us.

Your Turn:

Are there people in your community who are alone or shut in? What can you do today to make them feel noticed and needed?