Tazria-Metzorah

This week we read a double parsha – Tazria and Metzorah.

Parsha Tazria (and she gives birth) continues with the laws of Tumah v'Taharah, ritual impurity and purity The focus of this portion is upon tzora'at, a supernatural physical affliction sent to warn someone to refrain from speaking badly about others. The disease progressively afflicted home, clothes and then one's skin - unless the individual corrected his ways and followed the purification process stated in the Torah. (I wonder if the Yiddush word t’souris (trouble) has it’s origin here in t’zorat. Interesting perhaps, but the actual Hebrew word tazara’at comes from the Aramaic segiruta which means “isolation”.)

Tzara’at - often erroneously translated as "leprosy" - is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person's skin (dark pink or green in garments or homes), a Kohen is summoned. Judging by various signs, such as an increase in size of the afflicted area after a seven-day quarantine, the Kohen pronounces it tameh (impure) or tahor (pure).

A person afflicted with tzara’at must dwell alone outside of the camp (or city) until he is healed. The afflicted area in a garment or home must be removed; if the tzara’at recurs, the entire garment or home must be destroyed.

Tzara’at seems to have disappeared sometime before the time of the Talmud. It was an affliction meant to warn a person to refrain from the two types of speech transgressions:

  1. Loshon Hora (literally "evil tongue") - making a derogatory or damaging statement about someone even though you are speaking the truth.

  2. Rechilus (literally "tale bearing") - telling someone the negative things another person said about him or did against him.

According to commentator Nehama Liebovitz, Tzara’at is not an illness that comes upon a person. It is supernatural; it afflicts a person through divine providence as a sign and indication that he has erred, and as a summons to him to repent.

Nehama writes “Accurately, the Torah term tzara’at is not leprosy. Leprosy is a contagious skin disease which is spread pathologically, by bacteria. Tzara’at, while designated an afflication (nega), is neither a disease nor contagious. First of all, there is no indication in the Torah or elsewhere that a metzora’ [ the person suffering from tzara’at] suffers a serious health problem. Secondly, if tzara’at were contagious, we would be required to quarantine every suspected metzora’ immediately. According to the protocols prescribed by the torah, however, we delay isolation pending a formal declaration by the kohen.”

Abrabanel (1437-1508) suggests that the laws of tzara’at help us deal with something that (outwardly) resembles the contagion of leprosy. The isolation of the metzora is intended to prevent the affliction from spreading, and the Torah further advises him not to use contaminated garments or utensils after he or she recovers. The challenge to this position, though, is the question: Of all the diseases from which mankind has suffered (and continues to be afflicted), why does the Torah pick just this one to treat?

Alternatively, there are interpretations of tzara’at that view it symbolically.

The Midrash draws our attention to the one particular aspect of the laws of tzara’at – the gradual progression that characterizes the onset of these afflictions. In every case, a waiting period of seven days is prescribed from the onset of the first symptoms to see how matters develop:

Nehama writes:

The All-Merciful does not mete out punishment immediately upon people themselves, as we learn from Job – So it is with the afflictions (nega’im): First they descend upon one’s house. If he repents – well and good; if not, the stones have to be removed. If he repents – well and good; if not, they have to be burnt. After that, the afflictions beset his body. If he repents – well and good; if not, the kohen comes and goes. If he repents – well and good; if not, “he shall dwell alone, making his residence outside the camp”.

While tzara’at clearly existed during Biblical times, it seems to have disappeared by the time of the Talmud. As the Talmud says, “An afflicted house never existed.” What prompted the change between the two? Sforno offers the following explanation for the difference:

When the generations no longer rose to the moral heights warranting this divine compassion, no sign of such afflictions visiting the house was ever again evident.

The Rambam writes:

Tzara’at is a homonymous term (having the same spelling or pronunciation but a different meaning, as do the words "peace" and "piece") denoting dissimilar subjects . . . The change in colour of garments and houses – termed tzara’at by the Torah – is not a natural phenomenon, but considered a sign and wonder for Israel to warn against evil talk . . . As the Torah warns us “Beware of the affliction of tzara’at; remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way.”

This refers to the words she spoke against her brother Moshe . . . indeed she had not even spoken ill of him but had only erred in equating him with other prophets. (Some interpretations say that Miriam’s lashon hara consisted of criticizing Moses’ wife behind his back). Despite the fact that Moses himself had taken no umbrage . . .Miriam was immediately punished for tzara’at.

According to the Rambam - How much more deserving of punishment are wicked and foolish people who indulge in idle and boastful talk . . . But the worthy of Israel indulge only in words of Torah and wisdom. Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed be He, helps them and credits them for it.

Why would tzara’at be a punishment for “evil speech” (leshon hara)? The Talmud denies a share in the world to come to anyone who “blanches someone else’s face in public”. Causing someone’s face to turn white is, arguably, shefikhut damim, spilling blood – equivalent to murder. Reciprocal retribution would call for the spilling of his blood in return. Since it is only metaphorical murder, the whitening of his appearance through the afflication of tazar’at is tantamount to his execution. Indeed, this explains why the Talmud regards someone afflicted with tazara’at as though he were dead.

The ritual purification of the metzora which uses “a piece of cedar wood, a crimson thread and a clump of grass” is also fraught with symbolism.

Cedar trees are the natural symbols of great stature, while a clump of grass is the quintessence of lowliness. Their combination in the ritual purification of the metzora’ emphasizes his need to learn humility. The crimson thread leads us back to the point about the equivalence between slander and spilling blood.

When the Kohen takes the string of scarlet and grass to purify a metzorah, our rabbis connect the disease to pride, in that both the grass and the thread are symbols of humbleness, lowliness, subjugation of egoism.

The Torah’s elaborate procedural system is both compassionate and aggressive; the former because the Torah makes it a communal and not an individual health problem. Why? Because ALL Israel is responsible – one for the other.

The problem of tzara’at was approached aggressively. If the disease had infected the entire house, the remedy was total evacuation and complete demolition, stone-by-stone, and a total rebuild.

What if the afflicted refused to leave?

The Rambam gives a famous answer – it is the innate personality of every Jewish soul to do the right thing. And if not? Jewish law steps in with a controversial concept known as kofin oso ad sheyomar rotzeh ani – an approved coercion that compels abeyance by force – eg. lashes, prison, etc.

The process to purify a metzorah is not unique. Indeed, it is reminiscent of two other rituals prescribed by the Torah: The sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah (the red heifer) and the original korban Pesach. This is hardly a coincidence. All three rituals have a common denominator that can account for the similarities between them: they all provide purification from death or its metaphorical equivalent.

While the cases of a tame’ met and the metzora’ fit this description, how does it reflect the korban Pesach? The korban Pesah marked the rejection of idolatry. The essence of Egyptian idolatry was the worship of and obsession with death. (Just think of the pyramids and the vast and magnificent burial chambers of the Pharaohs.)

There appears to be another distinction borne by the korban Pesach. Its ritual involved only the clump of grass, without either cedars or crimson threads. The ram’s blood, however, substituted for the crimson threads as the symbolic equivalent of lifeblood, and the notion of stature foreshadowed by the application of the blood to the linten (the top of the door) since there are not likely to be cedar trees in Egypt in any event.

Metzorah

The second Torah Portion, Metzora, continues with the purification process for the metzora, the person afflicted with tzora'at and then the home afflicted with tzora'at. When the metzora heals, he or she is purified by the Kohen with the special procedure involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop.

Ritual impurity is also engendered through a seminal or other discharge in a man, and menstruation or other discharge of blood in a woman, necessitating purification through immersion in a mikvah (a naturally gathered pool of water).

The portion ends with the mention of circumcision on the 8th day and the purification process for discharges from the flesh. A woman giving birth should undergo a process of purification, which includes immersing in a mikvah and bringing offerings to the Holy Temple.

The question is, why is a woman who gives birth ritually impure? Why the need for an offering? After all, if procreation is the very first of all commandments, isn’t a mother fulfilling a God-given purpose?

Abravanel claims that her offering is not sin-related but one of thanksgiving (for herself and her child) for surviving the pain and danger of childbirth – an echo of Rabbi Abba bar Kahana who wrote “The embryo dwells in its mother’s womb and the Holy One, blessed be He, watches over it that it does not fall and die. Does this not warrant praise?’

When does life begin? For a boy, Jewish life begins on the eighth day, a time frame that matches what was needed for creation itself, including at least one Shabbat. Yet the mother’s ritual impurity is 14 days for a daughter (vs 7 days for a boy), leading some commentators to suggest that it takes longer to recover from the birth of a girl – a position not medically proven. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees it in terms of a “female covenant”, where the second seven days takes the place of a boy’s brit milah.

So, what is ritual impurity. Here’s one interesting idea put forth by Nehama:

Ritual impurity (TUMAH) is really the absence of (TAHARAH) ritual purity. For example in this week’s sedrah, a woman becomes a NIDAH and ritually impure only because her menstrual blood means that for a while she is unable to be a creator (create and nurture a new life within her). The temporary fall from potential creator causes an absence or vacuum of spiritual purity which is replaced with temporary impurity.

I read an interesting piece from Ohr Chadash: In speaking of Tz’arat, the Talmud (Arachin 16a) enumerates a long list of sins that cause the disease such as bloodshed, false oaths, sexual misconduct, pride, robbery and selfishness. The sins of slander and gossip though stand out among all the sins as the primary reason for tzara'at. The one who has the disease is called a metzorah, and the Sages explain this name is a contraction of the term motza rah, a spreader of slander, or more literally, one who brings out evil.

Art Scroll points out that all the sins listed above have a common theme of insensitivity to others and imply a self-centered attitude. Therefore, the one who contacts this disease is then isolated from the community as a learning process of experiencing the pain he has caused others in the hope that it will move him to repentance and introspection.

The Torah’s teachings are relevant to each person in each generation. The only disease per se treated in the Torah is tzara'at and the fact that all the commentaries explain in depth the spiritual source of the disease is highly significant. In addition to the emotional, psychological and spiritual causes of tzara'at, the afflicted person goes through a dramatic and transforming healing process which entails a real paradigm shift in their relationship to the world around them. Much of these two portions describe this healing process.

Despite all the tremendous advances in medicine this last century western medicine was until very recently extremely reluctant to relate sickness or disease to anything but purely physical factors. The influence of the mental state of the individual was considered irrelevant to the symptoms of disease. But this attitude has begun to change as more and more evidence is gathered that many of the most troubling diseases of our age are in fact caused in large part by emotional, psychological and spiritual factors, which in turn cause stress and unhealthy life styles leading to disease.

These factors are now seen to have a major impact on setting the stage for a whole host of conditions such as obesity, ulcers, migraine headaches, insomnia, back pain, constipation and other stomach problems, as well as high blood pressure and certain heart conditions. Many other medical conditions are thought now to have some connection to non-physical factors as well. Until AIDS began to spread to the general population it was contained to those practicing certain sexual practices and among drug addicts. Cigarette smoking, poor eating habits and lack of exercise, which are now recognized as major contributors of sickness and disease, are also caused by a stressful, pressure driven life style. These habits in turn have very negative ramifications on a person's health.

The mind/body connection is receiving more and more attention and credence while alternative healing methods which treat the entire person are not only gaining in popularity but are making major inroads into conventional medical practices and journals. Not only is the cause of disease being related to the human psyche, but the treatment and alleviation of these conditions are being shown to depend in many cases on a person's attitude and willingness to change long and ingrained patterns of behavior.

All of these discoveries of the intrinsic connection between the spiritual world of an individual and his or her physical condition are alluded to in the Torah's explanation of tzara'at. One beautiful allusion to this connection is in the verse: "If the hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction's appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh; it is the affliction of tzara'at (Tazria 13:3). "Deeper than the skin" is an allusion to the source of the disease being deeper than the superficial physical symptom alone. Another allusion to the spiritual dimension of the disease is the role of the kohen, the priest, in identifying and leading the afflicted one through the healing process.

By realizing the deeper aspects of what these portions are teaching relating

to tzara'at we can have much greater appreciation of the Torah's wisdom and its relevance for us today.

I was reading a D’var Torah by Rabbi Sachs on this parsha, written I think in 2017. He begins with advice that he gives to every couple seeking counsel before their wedding. The Rabbi wrote, “I give them a simple suggestion. It is almost magical in its effects. It will make their relationship strong and in other unexpected ways it will transform their lives.

They have to commit themselves to the following ritual. Once a day, usually at the end of the day, they must each praise the other for something the other has done that day, no matter how small: an act, a word, a gesture that was kind or sensitive or generous or thoughtful. The praise must be focused on that one act, not generalized. It must be genuine: it must come from the heart. And the other must learn to accept the praise.

That is all they have to do. It takes at most a minute or two. But it has to be done, not sometimes, but every day.”

The Rabbi believes that lashon tova, good speech is the antidote to lashon hora, evil speech. He writes, “Judaism is a religion of the ear more than the eye; of words rather than images. God created the natural world with words and we create or damage the social world with words. We do not say, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” To the contrary, words can cause emotional injuries that are as painful as physical ones, perhaps more so.”

He cites studies done on gossip and why it is so difficult to cure people of doing it. One such study was elaborated by American sociologist Samuel Heilman, who wrote an incisive book, Synagogue Life, about a Modern Orthodox congregation of which, for some years, he was a member. He devotes a lengthy chapter to synagogue gossip. Giving and receiving gossip, he says, is more or less constitutive of being part of the community. Not gossiping defines you as an outsider.

Gossip, he says, is part of “a tight system of obligatory exchange.” The person who scorns gossip completely, declining to be either donor or recipient, at the very least “risks stigmatisation” and at the worst “excludes himself from a central activity of collective life and sociability.” In short, gossip is the lifeblood of community.

Now, not only Heilman but probably every adult member of the community knew full well that gossip is biblically forbidden and that negative speech, lashon hara, is among the gravest of all sins. They also knew the damage caused by someone who gives more gossip than he or she receives. They used the Yiddish word for such a person: a yenta. Yet despite this, argued Heilman, the shul was in no small measure a system for the creation and distribution of gossip.

So common is lashon hara that one of the giants of modern Jewry, R. Yisrael Meir ha-Cohen (the Chofetz Chaim) devoted much of his life to combatting it. Yet it persists, as anyone who has ever been part of a human group knows from personal experience. You can know it is wrong, yet you and others do it anyway.

But Rabbi Sach’s advice – praising daily, specifically and sincerely transforms relationships and saves marriages. It heals what lashon hara harms. Evil speech destroys relationships. Good speech mends them. This works not only in marriages and families, but also in communities, organizations and businesses.

Rabbi Sachs ends his d’var with the following: “So: in any relationship that matters to you, deliver praise daily. Seeing and praising the good in people makes them better people, makes you a better person, and strengthens the bond between you. This really is a life-changing idea.”