Tazria 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


The next two parshiyot deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being “unclean” physically, but was a spiritual state which prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction which is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but what the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A nega is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.

It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.


“The person who has tzara’at, who has an impure affliction, shall tear his clothes, and shave his head, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips, and he shall cry ‘Impure! Impure!’ ” (Leviticus 13:45)


The metzora, as explained above, was understood to convey ritual impurity; the Torah seems to be teaching here that such a person must dress and behave in such a way that the ritual impurity would not be conveyed to others.


The post-Biblical rabbis understood tzara’at to be Divine punishment for sin, specifically the sin of slander. My sense is that they, too, found the rules of purity and impurity obscure, and probably even asked themselves: if tzara’at were not a result of sin, of what use would all those pages of regulation be to us today, when we have no priesthood to solve the problems of ritual impurity and affliction?

Even without making the big midrashic leap from skin disease to slander, we still find in the traditional commentaries a desire to see in the law of skin afflictions a deep compassion that they believed was central to the Torah’s values. Our verse above, at first glance, seems cruel and shaming to the unfortunate metzora; it’s bad enough that he has a skin affliction, but the Torah makes him go through the camp with torn clothes proclaiming his problem to everybody?

Thus the Talmud interprets this verse as teaching that the afflicted person’s publicizing of his plight was not to bring him shame, but to bring him the prayers and compassion of the community. (Moed Katan 5a; Sotah 32b; quoted in a collection of commentaries called Love Your Neighbor, by Zelig Pliskin) The hope was that the people who heard of the metzora’s problem would pray for him, and perhaps thus speed his recovery. In one of the two places in the Talmud where this interpretation occurs, it even goes so far as to generalize that anybody who is suffering should make their suffering known, so that the community may come to pray for them. (Sotah 32b)

Perhaps we can understand this teaching more broadly. Almost everybody has a problem they don’t want anybody else to know about, and I’d be willing to bet that in most such cases, the problem is more common than the sufferer thinks. A classic example is addictive behaviors, perhaps food or sex or alcohol abuse. The addict often thinks that nobody else has this problem and nobody else can understand; thus they feel ever more shamed and secretive about the state they’re in. The first step in recovery is to admit honestly what the problem is; the truth must be brought out into the light before changes are likely to happen.

The metzora crying out “Impure! Impure!” throughout the camp is a great metaphor for the person who can admit without shame that they have a problem. Once they can say, in public, in front of their friends and family, what their problem is, then they can seek help with the support of their community, and hopefully grow from the experience. Such a problem doesn’t have to be as dramatic or life-threatening as alcoholism or drug abuse; we simply have to be willing to name the truth about ourselves. The other side of the equation is that we need to react with prayer and compassion to anyone making such an admission. Radical honesty is a key to spiritual growth, and with a little help from our friends and from the Healing One, even the worst “affliction” may be made pure and whole again.

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