Table for Five: Tazria-Metzora
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is clean. Lev. 13:40
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Vice-President, Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
Are you bald? This verse distinguishes between pre-existing baldness and baldness caused by a contagious disease called tzara’at. According to Rabbi Yechiel Meir of Moglenitza, the baldness referred to here is not physical, lack of hair, but spiritual, lack of mitzvot. Our contemporary tzara’at, Coronavirus, is an impediment to mitzvot. Many mitzvot involve touching, kissing, gathering, handing food to the needy, or being in the presence of a sick or bereaved person, a parent, a stranger or a friend. With creative thinking and technological help, we can find new ways to do mitzvot nowadays.
Like my father, we can walk around the block, across the street from someone who is emerging from shivah. We can call, Facetime or Zoom our own or someone else’s grandparents. Jewish on-line learning opportunities are multiplying as never before. As Rabbi Lori Shapiro said, “Judaism is more viral than this virus.” By refraining from travel, we are reducing air pollution and taking better care of the earth. We are showing collectively that we can make rapid, coordinated sacrifices to prevent destruction – which is also necessary to avert future disasters such as climate change and environmental degradation. The silver lining of this crisis is that many of us are demonstrating capacity for fast, radical social change to save ourselves and each other.
Even if we are physically distant, we can stay spiritually connected. In facing our contemporary disease, let’s not let it make us “bald” of mitzvot.
Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
When I met my husband in our early 20s, he was already shaving his head because he had started losing his hair in college. In our 18 years together, he has never paid for a haircut. When we started to “shelter in place,” I quickly realized how lucky my husband was. He wouldn’t miss out on his pre-Pesach haircut this year, while our kids and I (and our dog, who is the most desperate) have no idea when we might get a haircut again.
This seemingly odd verse is part of a larger passage about how ancient Israel dealt with a skin disease that most likely resembled leprosy. Our verse explains, if the patient were to become bald during the course of the disease, the priest would proclaim them “clean,” or pure. The 19th century Chassidic master, the Meor Vashemesh, uses this verse as a lesson: be wary of an excess of luxury. Describing hair as a luxury, he uses the verse to teach appreciation for what is sufficient, reducing our desire for opulence. Many of us have learned the same lesson during this pandemic. We have been forced to refocus on necessity. Need I say more than toilet paper?
The only way out of this is to give up on certain luxuries – going out to get a haircut or to a Shabbat dinner puts us and our community in danger. We will become “clean” again by focusing on the essential, and at least temporarily shedding that which is not.
Nina Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org
Why is a man who loses the hair on his head considered tahor, ritually pure? What is the connection between the physical state of baldness and the spiritual state of purity? Exploring these questions, Rabbi Simon Jacobson focuses on the strange nature of hair. It grows but is not alive.
It’s a bodily appendage but doesn’t feel anything or create anything. Hair comes from the head, close to the brain, but unlike the brain, hair has very little intrinsic value. Beautiful hair can enhance one’s appearance and thick hair can warm one’s head, but there are other ways to be attractive and a wide variety of hats for cold weather. In truth, hair is dead stuff coming out of our heads that we spend money on and then throw away. Is this why the Torah elevates baldness to the holy state of tahara, spiritual purity?
Rabbi Jacobson likens our hair to “what we do” and our brain to “who we are.” Ideally, what we do should reflect who we are, but there’s often a disconnect between our pure hearts and our messy behavior. The only humans who are perfectly aligned are infants; what they do is who they are, and their baldness is a physical manifestation of their spiritual purity. As we grow, the gap between who we are and what we do widens, and our job is to narrow that gap. How do we do this?
By shaving away anything that covers up the true shininess of our souls.
David Sacks, Torah Podcaster Torahonitunes.com
When I started losing my hair, my mother, who was a very loving but tough woman, turned to me one day and stated in a commanding voice, “David, you’re losing your hair! There’s nothing you can do about it, so get used to it!”
It was the conversational equivalent of ripping off a band aid. It stung, but afterwards, I felt oddly relieved. Being single at the time, my biggest concern was attracting a wife. Would a woman I wanted to build a life with, take one look at me, and dismiss me out of hand? During this turbulent time of often low self-esteem, I learned a piece of Torah that gave me a lot of strength. Regarding the Leviathan, the awesome sea creature that Hashem created on the fifth day, initially two were created, male and female. Later, Hashem removed the female from the world.
The Talmud teaches that Hashem did this because had the Leviathans been fruitful and multiplied, their utter massiveness would have destroyed the world. How on earth did that teaching bring a balding man joy? Because, I reasoned, if the Leviathan was going to destroy the world and Hashem STILL brought his soulmate with him into the world, how much more so, me, who is NOT going to destroy the world, did Hashem bring my soulmate into the world! And if she really was my soulmate, she wouldn’t mind if I was losing my hair. Indeed, we met. And indeed, she didn’t.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Prominent Inspirational Speaker
The double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora focuses on tzara’as, a spiritually caused physical affliction that was primarily the result of loshon hora. In the context of speaking of how those with tzara’as may have certain kinds of hair loss, we learn in Parshas Tazria (Vayikra 13:40-1) that “if a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is clean” – i.e.- not considered to be afflicted with tzara’as.
That said, the Talmud (Kiddushin, 36a) learns from the verse cited above that a Jewish male may not completely shave his head! Perhaps one can suggest there is a difference between shaving when one needs to follow a prescribed ritual for ridding oneself of tzara’as, which is done under the guidance of a Kohen, and shaving for other purposes. After all, the Torah is also clear that a man may not shave specific parts of the head – the ‘payos’ (Vayikra 19:27), and yet the Torah allows the shaving of the head to monitor tzara’as. I believe there is a profound life lesson that we can all learn from this distinction … We cannot play G-d! G-d gave us a Jewish soul and only He truly understands the spiritual DNA of our souls.
It follows that while we mortals may not understand or appreciate how shaving one’s head in one instance is permissible while in other instance it is prohibited, we need to humbly acknowledge that only G-d truly knows what is best for us.
With thanks to Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Nina Litvak, David Sacks, and Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
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