Metzora 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora

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.


Metzora continues the laws of skin blemishes begun in the last parasha, Tazria (see this link for some thoughts on how we can understand this seemingly arcane part of the Torah.) This week we learn about the ritual purification of someone afflicted with a skin outbreak; how to deal with scaly outbreaks on houses; and the laws of ritual purification after a bodily discharge.


“Behold- I send to you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of God.” (Malachi 3:23, from the Shabbat HaGadol Haftarah)


This week is also called Shabbat HaGadol, the last regular Shabbat before Pesach, on which we read a special Haftarah, from the book of Malachi. This Haftarah describes God’s challenge to the people: if they will be faithful to God, and follow the both the ritual and ethical commandments, then God will be faithful to the people, and send a day of awesome judgment on sinners and evildoers. This future “day of the Lord” is meant to evoke the past “day of the Lord,” in which God sent plagues upon the Egyptians in order to secure the freedom of the Israelites.


Shabbat HaGadol- the “Great Sabbath”- may get its name from the verse quoted above, in which God promises to send Elijah the prophet before the “great and awesome day of God.” Another theory is that the “Great Sabbath” is so called because on that day the local rabbi would give a long discourse on the laws and customs of Pesach, so that the people would be properly prepared in the following week.

There is also a midrashic connection, one that follows the chronology of the Exodus story. Before the final plague upon the Egyptians, God commands Moshe to tell the people to take a lamb on the tenth day of the month, four days before the night of redemption from slavery. (See Exodus 12) On the fourteenth day, the Israelites were to slaughter this lamb- the Pesach sacrifice- and put some of the blood on their doorposts, as a marker so that their houses would be “passed over” by the plague of the death of the firstborn. According to this midrash, in the year of the Exodus, the tenth of the month of Nissan was Shabbat; hence, every Shabbat before Pesach, we recall the “great and awesome” deliverance on the anniversary of our people’s preparation for it.

Various explanations have been proposed in the commentaries as to why the Israelites needed to slaughter a lamb and mark their doorposts- after all, if God knew who the firstborn were, then certainly God knew which houses belonged to the Israelites! One opinion, shared by several commentators including Ramban, is that the lamb was chosen because the Egyptians had gods who took the form of animals, including a sheep. Thus, when the Israelites tied up a lamb to slaughter, it was a form of spiritual resistance, a demonstration that while the Egyptians may have enslaved their bodies, the Israelites were still loyal to the God of their fathers and mothers, the God Who is One.

To me, this is a wonderful midrash because it suggests that the Israelites took an active role in their own liberation- or, to put it another way, the Exodus from Egypt began in the hearts and minds of the oppressed people. As many people who have been “liberated”- from addictions, from fear, from an abusive relationship or situation, from various forms of oppression- can tell you, they too had to take an active role in the blossoming of their own freedom. The old cliché applies: “God helps those who help themselves.” I understand this to mean that moral of the Passover story is that people should not wait passively for miraculous interventions; rather, we must search within ourselves for courage and strength, with which we can achieve miraculous results.

This interpretation doesn’t write God out of the narrative. Rather, it allows us to refocus on one of the “hidden” miracles of the story, the courage with which our ancestors declared their spiritual independence from an oppressive and evil regime. As the Haftarah on Shabbat HaGadol reminds us, the redemption from Egypt is but a prologue to the greater redemption yet to come- which will also require spiritual clarity and moral fearlessness.

The prophet Malachi describes an “awe of God,” and contrasts it with the “practitioners of idolatrous magic, the adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who withhold the wages of laborers, widows, and orphans, those who oppress the stranger.” To possess the “awe of God” is to resist and abhor unethical behaviors; the day that all ill-treatment of living beings is left behind will be the “great and awesome day of God” for which we yearn and struggle. If telling the Exodus story gives us hope for the future, based on our remembrance of God’s Presence in our sacred history, then Shabbat HaGadol reminds us that it’s not all up to God alone, that we too need to play a part in the great things yet to come. The Redemption begins in our hearts, when we make committments to holiness, just as it did for our ancestors, when they cast aside their fears and chose to reject the unholy values of their captors.

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