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Torah Sparks

Parashat Metzora
April 5, 2014 – 5 Nisan 5774

Annual (Leviticus 14:1-15:33): Etz Hayim p. 660; Hertz p. 470
Triennial (Leviticus 14:1-32): Etz Hayim p. 660; Hertz p. 470
Haftarah (II Kings 7:3-20): Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Greenbaum
Charleston, SC

Parashat Tazria explains the properties and remedies for a person or fabric with tzara’at, this portion details how a person is purified from tzara’at. The purification includes ceremonies and offerings carried out by a priest in addition to the afflicted person washing, shaving, and cleaning his/her clothes. Offerings differ depending on the afflicted person’s wealth.

We learn that, when the Israelites enter Canaan, tzara’at can potentially afflict their houses. Depending on the degree of affliction, the houses must be scraped off, or perhaps torn down, while those who enter the house must be purified.

Men and women with atypical discharges from their sexual organs are impure; this impurity can spread to someone who touches an afflicted person or who touches items that person has touched. A menstruating woman also is impure, as is anything or anyone that she touches. Disregarding these laws puts the Tabernacle at risk of defilement, and, as a result, puts an afflicted person at risk of death.

Theme #1: Affliction

This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be purified. … The one to be purified shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be pure. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. (Leviticus 14:2a, 8)

Those who suffer from tzara’at must jump through a serious of proverbial hoops to return to their everyday lives – even when they still lack a full understanding of what has happened to them.

Relative time is more specifically “ritual time,” that is, the time that is needed to perform the ritual adequately and that will ultimately lead to a successful ritual outcome. The seven-day period, so prevalent in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the larger [Ancient Near Eastern] context, provides an interesting point of departure for a discussion of relative ritual time. The combination “seven” and “days” occurs some 85 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in cultic contexts. … All events connected to the seven-day period require the whole period in order to be complete. … Second, the seven-day ritual period involves transitions. … Third, the seven-day period … often stresses the rite-of-passage character of a particular ritual. … Fourth, … [it] often results in achieving holiness. — Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Resh Lakish said: The verse “This shall be the ritual for a leper” means, “This shall be the law concerning he who says evil speech.” — Talmud Arakhin 15b

The rite [of the metzora] is the survival of something archaic and primitive. The text does not mention anything about the demonic -- only in the case of the scapegoat is there a brief allusion -- and quite possibly such notions had already vanished from the minds of those who wrote down this chapter. Customs often survive after their original motives are forgotten. Later on, edifying explanations were offered by talmudic and more recent preachers. But the attempt to find in the rite the symbolism of spiritual regeneration is forced. The ceremonies were designed to remove a defilement that was a threat to the entire community. — Bernard J. Bamberger from Torah: A Commentary

Questions for Discussion:

Klingbeil notes the frequency of rituals cycles of seven days’ time, saying that it is a biblical example of the concept of completion, and through that completion, we achieve holiness. It recalls the cycle of creation, in which God sanctifies the seventh day, Shabbat. Why is creation so central to everything that follows in the Torah, and, by extension, all of Jewish tradition? How does a continual focus on creation shape how we relate to God?

The passage from Arakhin gives us the common understanding of the meaning of tzara’at: just as Miriam became a metzora after she criticizes Moses’ wife in Numbers 12, so too any Israelite contracts tzara’at as retribution for evil speech. This is different from other kinds of biblical punishments; based on other biblical passages, one might expect that someone who gossips would be afflicted in the mouth, corresponding to his/her sin. Is connecting tzara’at to evil speech a satisfying explanation?

As a follow-up to the passage in Arakhin, consider Bamberger’s claim that modern attempts to understand tzara’at are“forced.” Is attempting to explain a concept from the Torah better than not explaining it at all? Is it better to say that we don’t know, or are there circumstances when it is better to try – even dubiously – to explain what we cannot really explain?

Theme #2: Bleak House

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:34-35)

Tzara’at is no ordinary bodily affliction; it can harm numerous other “bodies”.

This is no natural phenomenon at all, and existed nowhere else in the world. But so long as the Israelites were in harmony with God, His spirit was always upon them, to preserve the healthy appearance of their bodies, garments and houses. Whenever one of them committed a sin, he would suffer a discoloration of his skin, garments and house, indicating that the Lord had departed from him. … It was then a plague inflicted by the Lord on that particular person. — Nahmanides

We have here a moral lesson and a suggestion to the priests of the people and their leaders that they not search for defects in the people as long as there is darkness around them. If the situation of the people is bad, showing symptoms of plague, such symptoms are not necessarily signs of ritual impurity. There is some reason to believe that the plague has not contaminated the inner essence of the people but rather only a superficial manifestation, a passing phenomenon, and it has only been distress that has brought the people into the power of such degraded spirit and deep depression. — Yalkut Penimim

What is it that the Torah seeks to spare? Man’s earthenware vessels, even his cruse and his ewer. If the Torah is so concerned about property that is of least worth, how much more about property that one prizes most; if about the property of a wicked man, how much more about the property of a righteous man. — Negaim 12:5

Questions for Discussion:

Nahmanides posits that God’s approval or disapproval of ancient Israelites’ actions would appear in visible signs. In our relationships with other people, we often wish we could get “signs” of their feelings toward us, be they positive or negative. How honest do we want people to be with us? When is a direct rebuke – like the discoloration of one’s house – welcome to us? When is it not? Is it fair for people to expect that we be as direct with them as they are with us?

Yalkut Penimim emphasizes that visible signs of transgression – like tzara’at on one’s house – be treated with caution, because it is possible that the person who has such a discoloration only does because he/she has panicked for some reason, not because of some deep-seeded deficiency of character. We know that we often make poor decisions when we are afraid. When, if ever, is fear or panic a legitimate excuse for unfortunate behavior? Should our answer make a distinction between fear based on reality and fear based on fantasy?

The mishnah from Negaim tells us that the caution with which the priests treat an afflicted house shows a concern for the preservation of a person’s possessions, even the simplest thereof – and that concern only grows for the precious possessions of a faultless person. Even though Judaism often eschews materialism, we can often find in our sources a healthy respect for a person’s property. How do we best strike a healthy balance between enjoying precious possessions and embracing that which is not a “thing?”

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