What can we learn from an ancient disease that was actually a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady?
Table for Five: Tazria-Metzora
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The person being cleansed shall then wash his garments, shave off all his hair, and be immersed in water, and become clean. After this, he may enter the camp, but he shall remain outside his tent for seven days.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
We get dirt. We know when we’re dirty, and we know how to clean up. True, a lot of that might be “nurture” as well as nature, but given the amount of time people put into their personal presentation, and money they spend on it, cleanliness does seem to be quite accepted. Spiritual “filth” is a more difficult matter.
A person can be physically clean from head to toe, and yet be spiritually “dirty,” physically immaculate, and yet find themself in a situation where they have been set aside from the rest of the community. There is no question that personal hygiene, or the lack thereof, can lose a person friends. But there is also no question that a person although perfectly groomed on the outside can be spiritually unrefined on the inside. In fact, sometimes the two can be mutually exclusive, especially when a person lords themself over others because of the way they physically look.
On the other hand, some people dress in shabby clothes and clearly do not look in the mirror when they get up in the morning, or at any other time for that matter. Yet, just by talking to them and watching the way they behave, it becomes clear that they are spiritually refined people, even godlike, exemplary. They may not look that way on the outside so much, but they certainly do on the inside. These Torah readings help to remind us that spiritual refinement is the main priority.
Rivkah Slonim, Educational Director, Rohr Chabad Center of Binghamton University
Irrespective of how you feel about cancel culture, everyone can agree that it highlights the importance of words. The metzorah, the Biblical leper, is a person who misused the gift of speech God granted the medaber, “the speaker,” an appellation that highlights the distinctive characteristic of humankind. Unlike those afflicted with other types of ritual impurity – the tamei nefesh, who had to leave the innermost camp of the shechina, or the zav, who had to leave beyond the second camp of the Levites – the metzorah had to leave even the third camp, that of Israelites.
While there are ten sins for which one could be afflicted with Tzaraat, speaking lashon harah, evil tongue, is the sin most associated with this condition. The metzorah is one who destroys. This is a person who replaces community with isolation, and supplants support and warm embrace with loneliness. The metzorah justly belongs outside of the system – the encampments – he pulverized from within. Words are meant to be building blocks, not missiles of mass destruction.
Even after the requisite time in isolation, the elaborate purification rites, and mikvah immersion, the metzorah spends an additional seven days in self-reflection before entering his tent. There is forgiveness, to be sure, but prior to coming home and enjoying intimacy, he must first be cleansed of the corrosive spirit of estrangement he had sown.
As a society we must do the same: purge the hurtful discourse while forgiving those who have shown remorse. We can find our way home. #It’sTime!
Rabbi Patricia Fenton, American Jewish University
Think about a time when you felt excluded. Perhaps you excluded yourself, or perhaps others excluded you. Perhaps, like me, you had a COVID contact scare and isolated yourself for 14 days. Remember your thoughts and your feelings. Did you ask for help? Did you want someone to reach out to you, to bring you back in?
Tazria-Metzora brings us the dramatic story of the metzora. It is a beautiful story, full of decision points and drama, a story of exile and reconciliation that is rich with meaning for us today.
After two checks by a priest, a confirmed metzora must leave the camp. Leviticus 14:8 describes the priest helping the soon-to-be-former metzora through re-entry rituals. They include “…and he shall dwell outside his tent for seven days.”
Our verse challenges us look at who is outside the tent – the big tent of community or the smaller tent of a home. Who has been outside all along? Who lost their physical home due to the pandemic? Who has a physical home, but has lost their spiritual and emotional home due to the death of a beloved? Who have we exiled? Who has exiled themself?
As we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, may the Holy One of Blessing help us to remember our Passover invitation to the needy. As a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, may we imitate the priests of Tazria-Metzora, who hesitate to exclude and not only invite, but work actively to include others.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Contributing Writer, Jewish Journal
Back in Biblical times, we had a much closer connection to G-d, as evidenced by the supernatural affliction this verse is referring to. Tzaraat was a plague that occurred when you committed certain sins, and you’d see different colored patches on your skin and your home.
A sinner would need to go through a series of rituals to rid themselves of this affliction. I believe it was much harder to sin in those days. If you did something wrong, you would face very public embarrassment. You would not be able to hide. You’d have to leave your community and shave your head. Everybody would know you did something wrong.
Today, nobody necessarily knows you’re sinning except for you and G-d. In a time when G-d seems so hidden, it’s a lot easier to go off the rails. The Jews who lived in those times were very holy – don’t get me wrong. But we are holy too. There is no obvious cause and effect when we sin, or harsh consequence like tzaraat. This makes it much more meaningful when you do the right thing just because the Torah says it’s right. It’s even more special when you’re fulfilling a hok, a law that does not have a logical explanation. But you do it anyway because you have faith.
Maybe when Moshiach comes, tzaraat will return. For now, we have to trust that by following the Torah, we are doing the correct thing and contributing to a brighter future ahead for ourselves and the Jewish people as a whole.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Motivational Speaker
Our Sages suggest that the primary cause of tzaraas in the ancient world was loshon hora – “evil tongue.” This sin is considered equivalent to all three cardinal sins, so one would think that we would have the wisdom and discipline to ensure that we do not speak evil of others.
If one understands the underlying motive for pursuing an action, one can learn to remove the drive to act inappropriately. The commentators on the Torah point out that one of the causes of loshon hora is arrogance. We can now appreciate some of the rituals that a person who spoke loshon hora was called on to perform “…wash his garments, shave off all his hair, and be immersed in water and become clean …. [and] remain outside his tent for seven days. (Leviticus, Chapter 14:8).
Directing a person to wash his garments (a task he may have thought is beneath him), to shave off his hair (the symbol of a person’s beauty) and remain outside his tent all have one thing in common – a person is cut down to size and arrogance is replaced by perspective and humility. A humble person does not think less of himself; he simply thinks of himself less. By being less self-absorbed, one can appreciate the beauty of others which in turn neutralizes the ability to make pejorative comments about other people.
To appreciate this life lesson in today’s world, if we become less self-absorbed and humbler because of the horrible pandemic over the past year, we have taken one of the important lessons of Torah portion Tazria-Metzora to heart.
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