Oftentimes in describing the details of life we talk about the percentages. I realized recently that I am one of the 0.0009 percent.
No, this isn’t a reference to income inequality (wouldn’t that be nice). This is a reference to two years ago, when I was struck down by bacterial meningitis-an inflammation of the layers surrounding the brain-and wound up in the hospital for a five days (half in the ICU) and on antibiotics for a few weeks after that.
So what’s with the percentage? One day I was playing around with numbers. At first I didn’t realize how rare meningitis is-you read about outbreaks in the newspaper every so often. But then it settles in that the reason is it newsworthy is because it is rare. So I looked up some statistics: Bacterial meningitis strikes about 4100 people a year in the United States. Of those, 500 die. And of those who survive, 1 in 5–or 720–have permanent disabilities. So I am one of the 2880 people in the United States each year who contract bacterial meningitis and survive without permanent injury.
And with a U. S. population of 318.9 million, 2880 is 0.0009%.
This Friday I recently learned has been designated World Meningitis Day by the Confederation of World Meningitis Organizations. Worldwide, meningitis kills or disables about 1.2 million people a year, and bacterial meningitis kills about 120,000 people a year. World Meningitis Day is a day set aside to raise awareness for the disease and its potentially devastating effects. A day to become educated on the warning signs and symptoms and the possibilities for treatment. A day to offer support for those who have been stricken by meningitis or lost a loved one to the disease. And a day to remember that there is a vaccine that can help prevent meningitis outbreaks. (I wrote about vaccines last week.)
This weekend, in addition to being World Meningitis Day, is parashat Tazria/Metzora in our weekly Torah reading. On Shabbat we turn our attention to this double portion, one of the more esoteric and foreign in our text. We are in the midst of Leviticus, and up until this point we have been reading about sacrifices and the priesthood and the dedication of the Tabernacle. And while we may struggle with the details, we can understand the underlying values of spiritual community, ritual, worship and communal organization.
But then we get to Tazria/Metzora. And the Torah turns its attention to purity and impurity (or cleanliness and uncleanliness), and especially how it relates to bodily functions. We are also introduced to metzora, commonly translated as leprosy, in texts such as this from Leviticus 13:
When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. If the priest finds that it appears lower than the rest of the skin and that the hair in it has turned white, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprous affection that has broken out in the inflammation. But if the priest finds that there is no white hair in it and it is not lower than the rest of the skin, and it is faded, the priest shall isolate him for seven days. If it should spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an affection. But if the discoloration remains stationary, not having spread, it is the scar of the inflammation; the priest shall pronounce him clean.
So what’s up with this? On the one hand, we see in the text the demonstration of the practice of medicine: a skin blemish needs to be checked out, brought to the local “doctor” who makes a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Very simple.
The later rabbis, however, have some difficulty with it. What is the reason for the leprosy? If a priest is involved, there must be a spiritual component to it. So they determine in the midrash (commentary), through a bit of word play, that if one suffers from leprosy it is because he engaged in the sin of hurtful speech. They read the word metzora (leprosy) as a short version ofmotzi shem ra (“one who brings out a bad name”)-or one who speaks ill of another.
This is a nice commentary, and I think we can all agree that hurtful speech has negative consequences, which is what the midrash is trying to teach. But how that message is conveyed is probably even more problematic than the original text. For here the rabbis offer a theological reason for illness, a leap which I don’t think any of us want to take. I certainly don’t. To accept this is to accept the fact that anyone who suffers from physical illness has some spiritual deficiency.
And at the same time, we can sympathize with the rabbis’ motivations. Illness is scary, especially when there is no apparent cause. A direct causation makes sense. It provides comfort.
When I was playing with the numbers, and I came up with that percentage of 0.0009, I was humbled. Why did I get ill? I don’t know. Why did I survive? I don’t know. Why did I survive without major complications? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that I am grateful.
World Meningitis Day for me is a day of awareness and sympathy and connection and gratitude. I’m glad I learned about it. And parashat Tazria/Metzora teaches that while we may get ill with various afflictions, we can also heal from them.
We know that is not always the case, and even with survival comes challenge. And yet we persist, sometimes despite and sometimes because of, the percentages. Because that’s life.