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Torah Sparks

April 28, 2012 – 6 Iyyar 5772

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial: Leviticus 13:40 – 14:32 (Etz Hayim p. 657; Hertz p. 464)
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20 (Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

The Torah reading begins with a discussion of the offerings a mother was to bring after childbirth to re-establish her ritual purity. If the mother was of limited financial means, the customary requirement of a sacrificial lamb is waived in favor of two pigeons or turtledoves. The sacrifices are brought following a period of ritual impurity – 33 days after the birth of a son and 66 days after the birth of a daughter.

The remainder of the parashah deals with “rash decisions,” with the priestly diagnosis and treatment of leprosy (as the variable biblical term for the affliction called tzara’at generally is translated), and the procedure that restores those afflicted with the condition to purity and allows them back after their forced separation from the community.

An Israelite declared leprous must rend his clothing, uncover his head, “covering the upper lip” as with a veil or mask, and call out “Unclean! Unclean!” This self-stigmatizing proclamation, quite in keeping with the mournful nature of the accompanying rituals, also serves to warn fellow Israelites not to approach for fear of immunological or ritual contamination.

Parashat Tazria goes on to discuss the priestly identification and purification or destruction of clothing and fabric affected by tzara’at: wool, linen, and leather. Parashat Metzora continues the laws of ritual impurity found in parashat Tazria. Leviticus 14 includes a priestly ritual manual for the diagnosis of tzara’at – various forms of leprosy – and describes the mechanisms by which a person so afflicted may regain a state of ritual purity and be re-admitted to the mainstream of the community. The slaughter of a single bird and the freeing of a second seem to prefigure the Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat, to be found in parashat Acharei Mot and read on the morning of Yom Kippur.

Leviticus 15 explores the laws of ritual purity in detail as they pertain to discharges from both male and female reproductive organs, both discharges that occur in the normal course of physiological processes and those deemed abnormal, a physiological dysfunction, or a sign of illness. The effect upon a person of contact with such an impure discharge or with certain inanimate objects (fabric, earthenware, bedding) also is detailed, and so is the effect of contact with the bodily fluids themselves.

The parashah also addresses forms of tzara’at that appear in building stones and plaster – “house leprosy” – possibly meaning mold, mildew, or fungus. The householder is required to talk to a priest, who will order the home to be emptied of its contents. After the priestly inspection, affected stones are removed. In extreme cases, after a second inspection, the house must be razed.

Theme #1: “Full Disclosure”

“As for the person with a leprous infection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover up his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’” (Leviticus 13:45 – Tazria)

Derash: Study

“The leper informs others that he is impure so they can keep away from him.” (Rashi)

“He shall make known his affliction so that they may pray for him. Likewise, a person upon whom a calamity has fallen should make it known so that others may pray for him.” (Talmud, Chullin 77B)

“With its overriding concern for the purity of the Tabernacle, Leviticus makes no provision for those thrown into an irredeemable state of impurity. It extended neither sympathy nor support to those most in need of both. Clearly, the public good took precedence over the well-being of the individual. The synagogue was designed to resemble the untidiness of an imperfect world. By choosing to sanctify time rather than space, the synagogue was able to transcend the preoccupation with physical purity and open its doors to those who needed God most of all.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” (Mother Teresa)

“As to the pure all things are pure, even so to the impure all things are impure.” (Augustus Hare)

Questions for Discussion

Rashi asserts that the leper’s call of “Impure! Impure!” was a self-stigmatizing admonition for others to keep their distance, lest they be ritually contaminated. Chullin, on the other hand, understands “Impure! Impure!” as an appeal by someone in a vulnerable state for aid and support from those in a position to offer spiritual solace (not unlike Quasimodo’s pained cry: “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”). Which interpretation seems closer to the peshat – the original, contextual meaning of the text?

What other possible significance might we find in the leper’s declaration? Could it be a reflection of his emotional condition? His perspective (see Hare)? His view of those around him and the system that has isolated him? If so, what response is warranted?

What might have motivated the transformation of Jewish religious life, as described by Chancellor Schorsch, from preoccupation with physical purity to the sanctification of time, and with it a greater capacity for empathy and emphasis on an individual’s spiritual needs? How does your own or your community’s celebration of sacred time include openness “to those who needed God the most”?

Are there people or groups whom we should deem “Impure! Impure” today, and from who we should separate ourselves? Who are those with “the feeling of being unwanted” who most deserve our prayers, attention, and practical support?

Theme #2: “Outbreak”

“And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being purified, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot – over the blood of the reparation offering. The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being purified. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord.” (Leviticus 14:16-18 – Metzora)

Derash: Study

“The oil is placed on the leper’s head, hand, and foot and sprinkled on the altar, to convey the idea that recovery from illness is the combined result of our actions, our attitudes, and divine grace.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“The intimacy of this ritual emerges clearly when one considers that the priest— who must avoid any contact with ritual uncleanness—himself smears the metzora’s extremities and anoints him with oil. In so doing, he advertises that the metzora retains no impurity, but is instead suitable for an intimate encounter with the holy man. Once the metzora is purified—these rituals seem to say—there is no clinging ‘taint.’ The rite is thus carefully calibrated to remove not just the metzora’s ritual uncleanness, but also to restore his dignity, to eliminate any residual stigma or shame.” (Rachel Farbiarz)

“The fact that the same procedure was followed for the consecration of a priest and the cleansing of a ‘leper’ rules out moralizing explanations.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Torah: A Modern Commentary)

“It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.” (Gilbert K. Chesterton)

Questions for Discussion

What do you make of the parallel between the ritual of priestly ordination (see Leviticus 8:23-24) and the purification of a leper? Are the parallels superficial (as Chesterton suggests, like the parallel between using a sword either to knight or to behead)? Or is the similarity between the rites purposeful? If so, to what purpose?

Rachel Farbiarz describes the priest’s role as one of role-modeling: he establishes direct, intimate interaction with the leper, dramatically demonstrating that such contact by other Israelites is safe, appropriate, and spiritually desirable. How can religious and Jewish lay leaders play a similar role today in their relationship to those who would be marginalized? How might this interpretation of the kohen’s ritual role be used even with young children to emphasize the virtues of inclusiveness and kindness, and treating unpopular peers graciously?

What is the meaning of “divine grace” in the process of healing and recovery? What can we do to enhance our receptivity to our worthiness of God’s grace? Or is grace by definition unrelated to either our efforts or our merits?

Historic Note

Parashat Tazria-Metzora, read on April 28, 2012, deals with priestly involvement with the treatment of disease, leprosy, inflammation, rashes, and bodily discharges. On April 28, 1932 – 80 years ago today – the development of a vaccine to prevent yellow fever was announced.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day, is officially the 5th of Iyar, this year, Friday – erev Shabbat Parashat Tazria-Metzora. In practice, however, Yom Ha- Atzma’ut is observed only on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, so that this modern holiday (as well as Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel Memorial Day) will neither coincide and conflict with Shabbat, nor immediately precede or follow it. This year’s observance of Yom Ha-Atzma’ut is moved up to Thursday, April 26. Siddur Sim Shalom reflects the Conservative movement practice of celebrating Yom Ha-Atzma’ut with Hallel, a Torah reading (Deuteronomy 7:12-8:18), and a haftarah (Isaiah 10:32-12:6). A special version of Al Ha-Nisim (a prayer previously recited only in conjunction with Chanukah and Purim) is also added to each Amidah on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, as well as to birkat hamazon. As for those who customarily refrain from haircuts and shaving during the omer, rabbinic authorities who advocate lifting these instructions in honor of Yom Ha-Atzma’ut include Rabbis Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Shlomo Aviner, and Tzvi Pesach Frank (see, for example, She'eilat Shlomo 2:144, Iturei Cohanim #186, and Shana Beshana 5752, p. 145).

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