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Torah Sparks

Parashot Tazria-Metzora
April 13, 2013 – 3 Iyar 5773

Annual: Leviticus 12:1-15:33 (Etz Hayim p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial: Leviticus 14:33-15:33 (Etz Hayim p. 663; Hertz p. 473)
Haftarah: 2 Kings 7:3-20 (Etz Hayim p. 675; Hertz p. 477)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

The Torah reading begins with a discussion of the offerings a mother was to bring after childbirth, so she could 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 turtle doves. The sacrifices are brought following a period of ritual impurity lasting 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," as it were – that is, with the priestly diagnosis and treatment of leprosy (as the variable biblical term for the affliction called tzara'at is generally translated), and the procedure to restore those afflicted to purity and allows them back after the forced separation from the community.

Once declared leprous, the Israelite expresses his state by rending his clothing, uncovering his head, "covering the upper lip" as with a veil or mask, and calling 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, alternatively, the destruction) of clothing and fabric affected by tzara'at: wool, linen, and leather.

Parashat Metzora provides a continuation of 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 efficacy of sacrificial blood in this rite is reinforced by the redness of the "cedar wood and crimson stuff" used in the purification procedure. 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, considering both the discharges that occur in the normal course of physiological processes and those that are 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: "My Son the Priest"

"When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests." (Leviticus 13:2 – Tazria)

Derash: Study

All are susceptible to ritual impurity through tzara'at, except for gentiles and resident aliens. All are qualified to inspect for signs of tzara'at, but only a priest may pronounce them unclean or clean. Skilled observers may advise the priest to say ‘Unclean' and he may do so. Or they may advise him to say ‘Clean' and he may do so. (Mishnah Negaim 3:1)

This is not a natural, earthly phenomenon, just as in the case of house leprosy; rather, when Israel is one with God, God's spirit is always upon them to keep their bodies and their garments and houses appearing good. But when one of them sins or transgresses, an ugliness appears in his body or his garment or his house to show that God has left him. (Nachmanides)

The tzara'at lesions which Scripture lists as rendering the victim unclean have nothing in common with the leprous diseases known to medicine. Tzara'at is a supernaturally caused affliction imposed by God on man to punish him for a sin or to atone for a wicked deed. (Sforno)

In biblical Israel, the kohen was both the religious and the medical authority. The biblical mind saw the connection between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of illness and recovery (perhaps more clearly than we see it today). (Chumash Etz Hayim)

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible..." (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Questions for Discussion

Modern readers of the Bible often try to find scientific explanations for events depicted by Scripture as supernatural. Nachmanides and Sforno here insist that a condition described in physical, if not medical, terms be understood as a strictly spiritual phenomenon. To what other areas of Jewish life and religious observance might their perspective be constructively applied? That is, what aspects of Jewish life might best be viewed as reflecting our bond with God... purported physical/medical benefits notwithstanding? Is there moral or spiritual peril in our reluctance to think in these terms?

How does Mishnah Negaim reinforce the "spiritual" nature of tzara'at? Does the reference to "skilled observers" strengthen or undermine this view?

Consider Oscar Wilde's insight as it applies to our parashah. Is his a decadent world view? Or is his approach in keeping with Judaism's refusal entirely to separate our physical being from our spiritual nature?

How would Sforno respond to Chumash Etz Hayim? Is the Chumash engaging in scientific apologetics... or does it reflect a healthy nexus between body and soul: mens sana in corpore sano?

Theme #2: "Grass... For Medicinal Purposes Only"

"The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought to him who is to be purified." (Leviticus 14:4 – Metzora)

Derash: Study

He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall. (I Kings 4:32-33)

Why is the metzora cleansed with the tallest of the tall and the lowliest of the low? ...Because one is afflicted with tzara'at for having aggrandized himself like a cedar tree; so when he humbles himself like a hyssop, he is cured. (Pesikta Rabbati)

Wouldn't hyssop alone teach us this characteristic or at least symbolize humility? What point is there in bringing cedar? And, in fact, if bringing moss represents the need for humility couldn't the offering of cedar represent the need for pride? ...At times after one has been humiliated as low as the hyssop he must rise in his own eyes to the height of a cedar and proudly exclaim that he can and will accomplish the lofty and far reaching goal to which he or she aspires. And those are goals that only the cedar's limbs can touch. So, perhaps the lowly hyssop must be bound with a seemingly mismatched and more supercilious counterpart, the cedar. Because when they are offered hand-inhand, they may have a lot to learn from each other. (Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky)

Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility. (Saint Augustine)

Questions for Discussion

I Kings' description of Solomon's intellectual repertoire – particularly its reference to cedar and hyssop as horticultural polar opposites – seems to have influenced rabbinic interpretation of our verse. Is there an implied moral lesson. (other than the value of humility) in the priest's recourse to mutually exclusive extremes?

Hyssop was also used in applying sacrificial blood to Israelite doorposts and lintels in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus. How might this historic/ritual allusion help explain this priestly procedure? Remember: cedar and crimson are both red, linking them to the sacrificial blood of the bird... and further reinforcing the connection to the Exodus preparations.

Rabbi Kamenetzky subverts the traditional interpretation of this verse: cedar to a certain degree, (i.e., lofty goals and an expansive self-perception) is the antidote to hyssop (read: humility)... rather than the opposite! Is his a more balanced approach to spiritual life and healthy character development? How might Rabbi Kamenetzky react to Saint Augustine?

Traditional commentators and classical sources like Pesikta Rabbati (echoed by Rashi ad loc.), assume that tzara'at is an affliction imposed by God for our spiritual shortcomings. To what extent has such a theology been either embraced or rejected by 21st Century Jews? How does this differ from the attitude of Chumash Etz Hayim, quoted on Parashat Metzora, above? What are the physical or personal consequences of spiritual apathy and negligence (Solomon Schechter, tellingly, used the term "spiritual amputations")?

Historic Note

In Leviticus Chapter 13, read on April 13, 2013, we read of the process by which Israelite priests diagnosed and responded to certain skin problems, dermatological eruptions, and leprous afflictions: "The priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days." On April 13, 1970, Captain James Lovell, commanding Apollo 13, reported an explosion on board the spacecraft: "Houston, we have a problem!" The crew of the abortive mission to the moon was, remarkably, returned safely to earth... having been stranded in space for seven days.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Rabbi Berel Wein observes in reference to tzara'at that "even though the Torah does describe for the kohein the standards and methods of diagnosis of the disease, it ultimately leaves the decision up to the kohein himself. The kohein's determination of the matter ultimately is a subjective one." Rabbi Wein deems this central aspect of our parashah "a remarkable and necessary insight" into the halachic process in general: "Within the objective standards set by the Torah in halachic matters and issues, there is always space left for human thought, intuition, and creativity... Many a great decisor and scholar in Jewish law has admitted to the fact that his intuition and/or bent of mind influenced his final decision. This thought process is then broadened further by the Jewish tradition and idea that human intuition in halachic matters is enhanced by aid from Heaven... This idea has been the underpinning of the halachic process of Judaism throughout the ages from the time of Sinai forward."

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