Torah Sparks: Parshat Tazria Metzorah by Rabbi Cantor Eliezer Kepecs

Today’s Torah portion, the double sedrah, Tazria-Metzorah deals with various strange topics resulting in ritual impurities caused by bodily fluids, to diseases such as leprosy which can attack not only the individual, but also the physical structure –the home that one lives in.  It is a concept shrouded in mystery, dating back to antiquity.

What is the concept of ritual impurity?  The modern day secularists feel that impurity is simply a superstition but may have certain practical benefits.  For example, if a human passes away in a house, halachically, one should immediately open the windows to let the soul and impurity exit.  The modern practical and scientific reason is, however, to prevent the odor from the deceased permeating the house thus airing out the house.  Another example is the ritual bathing in the mikvah or the lighting of candles.  Aside from casting a peaceful glow, flames are thought to drive away negative spiritual forces.  Since we live and breathe and work in the physical realm, we do not actually “see” what is in other non-physical realms.  Even scientists believe there is a fourth dimension.  You cannot see a black hole, yet it is there.   You cannot see or touch gravity, yet it is what keeps us on the ground.  We cannot actually see the other realms, the spiritual ones that are spoken of in our ancient mystical works of the Kabbalah.  These are the worlds of the hierarchy of Angels; worlds that are even thought to be inhabited by our very own souls.  Even some of the Greek and Roman Mythology that we had learned about in school may have its origins in a different interpretation of parts of the Torah, as well as ancient Kabbalah.  Ritual impurity, therefore, may affect other non-physical realms, the realms of the Sephirot.  Even though we cannot see the effects, they might still be there on another existential plane of existence.  And if it is in another plane of ours, it will come back to haunt us here in the physical plane.  The traditional Judaic approach is that this ritual impurity prevents entering into the divine presence.  It prevents bonding with God in the proper way, and if that were to happen, chas v’shalom, bad occurrences can befall us in our physical world.  My understanding of this is that the Torah is guiding us down the path that impurity can lead to havoc in our day-to-day lives, and so even though the Torah does not explain why we must observe the laws of ritual impurity, it commands us to do so in its mitzvoth.

Our portion speaks of the physical ailment, “Tzora’at,” leprosy. What is actually Tzora’at?  The Webster’s dictionary describes Leprosy as: “Hansen’s disease; a chronic infectious disease caused by a mycobacterium affecting especially the skin and peripheral nerves, and characterized by the formation of nodules or macules that enlarge and spread accompanied by a loss of sensation with eventual paralysis, wasting of muscle, and production of deformities.”  Shakespeare’s King Lear alludes to this disease in the form of a direct insult: “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an unbossed carbuncle.”  Some feel it is a form of severe Psoriasis and its white flaking of skin that attacks the body.

So what is the leprosy of the Torah?  Is it actually this grotesque disease that Shakespeare offers for his readers’ pleasure, or is it something else, more supernatural, if you will.  Perhaps we can find the answer further in our portion, which speaks of houses that are also infected with these maladies – “v’natati nega tzora’at bveit eretz achuzatchem,”  “and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess.”  The portion continues, “The Kohen shall order the house cleared so that nothing in the house may become impure, and after that, the priest shall enter to examine the house.”  The pasuk, “V’natati nega Tzora’at,” “and I inflict an eruptive plague,” holds the key.  This is not a normal run of the mill disease, nor is it a disease caused by accidentally contracting the malady causing bacterium, but it is rather directly inflicted as a result of something evil that the person did.  Let us examine this further.

Sages considered leprosy to be a punishment for the sins of slander and malicious gossip.  Since leprosy is highly contagious, so too is gossip.  Slander destroys an individual, killing the person’s reputation.  Leprosy destroys a person physically as well as emotionally.  In the case of Miriam, Moses’ sister, her leprosy in Numbers 12:10, is caused by her speaking ill of her brother’s wife, “vat’daber Miryam v’Aharon b’Moshe, al odot ha’ishah hakushit asher lakach, ki ishah Kushit lakach,”  “and Miryam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he took, for he married a Cushite woman.”  It seems on the surface that Miriam and Aharon did not care too much for darker skinned women, but Rashi seems to imply that the transgression was loshon harah, the evil tongue, not for the fact that Miriam was speaking ill of a black woman, but rather speaking ill that Moses divorced such a beautiful exotic woman as Tzipporah as found in the Midrash.  Either way, the Torah, which comes from the word moreh, a teacher, is trying to teach us, to guide us on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.  Since we are an “or lagoiim,” a light unto the nations, a beacon, we teach the rest of society by example.

But more about this curious house malady – Negah Tzora’at.  The appearance of Tzora’at in the stones of a house was a mysterious event, and according to the sages, a moral warning.  Sure, biologically, scientifically, it could have been a particularly severe strain of mold, but once again the term “V’natati,”  “I inflict” is fastened upon to deduce that this was indeed a plague sent by God upon a particular family, because of a breakdown of the family’s social values.  Since one’s home is a place of refuge, if your home was infected, it was to mean that the infected family practiced selfishness, and a blindness to the needs of others.  Those stones, which are infected, are to be scraped down and replaced.  If the problem is a severe one and it comes back, the house must be torn down and re-built.  The physical act of tearing it down and rebuilding was designed to teach the owner a lesson on his own morality.

Unlike the modern medical approach, which seeks to cure by natural means, the classical Jewish sources argue that cure from “tzaraath” only came about through repentance and forgiveness. In particular, the Midrash Rabbah sees the different types of “tzaraath” as increasing levels of punishment, which could be curtailed at any stage if repentance was made:
1)  The first stage in Midrash Rabbah’s view was the infection of homes, and if repentance came here it would only require the removal of the affected stones for a cure.
2)  The second stage, the “tzaraath” would not go away, and so the entire house must be torn down.  And if the infection came upon one’s clothes, if repentance came here it required only washing of the clothes for a cure.
3)  The third stage of Rabbah’s scheme, the clothes must be burnt, and the infection enters the person’s skin; if repentance occurs here then purification could occur.
4)  The fourth stage, which only occurs when the person has completely refused to repent, the person is forced to dwell alone with boils on his body for company.

In the cases of any forms of impurity, including Tzora’at, negah Tzora’at, menstrual and sexual matters, bodily discharges, and physical contact with the dead, one was not able to enter into the divine presence, so sacrifices (fire) and mikvah (water) were used to cleanse the individual.  In modernity, prayer replaced sacrifices.  The Torah teaches, we are all created in the image of God, we all have the Divine Spark, and so our own body is a temple of God, which is, by the way, why tattoos are not permitted in Judaism.

So Tazria- Metzorah, though on the surface may seem like a trivial, non-important section dealing with a grotesque, deforming, life-altering ailment, it is placed there in order to remind us to walk the right path in our own physical plane in the universe we call life.

–by Cantor Eliezer Kepecs

Written and presented by Rabbi Cantor Lawrence Eliezer Kepecs for Sat. April 25, 2009.  All rights reserved.  No part of this speech may be reproduced in any way, without mention of the copyright’s name.

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