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
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)
“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.”
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
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)
“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?
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.
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).