Tazria-Metzorah: Humility and Respect

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzorah

Greetings!

It’s a lovely spring weekend, just the right weather for everybody’s
favorite Torah portions, Tazria-Metzorah, which are largely concerned
with the practices of ritual purification after a bodily discharge or
a skin blemish. (Not “leprosy,” let’s be clear.) Tzara’at
[aforementioned scaly skin blemishes] and other outbreaks which can
cause ritual impurity can also occur in cloth, vessels, and even a
house, all of which involves bringing in the priest to declare that
it’s really tzara’at and not something else.

In fact, of the most fascinating aspects (well, at least, to me) of
the laws of “tzara’at” is that no matter what shows up on a person’s
skin or in their house, it’s not a ritual impurity unless the priest
says it is. No matter what it looks like to anybody else, the priest
is the one who must make the final determination- so much so that
Rashi says that even a Torah scholar doesn’t have the authority to
declare that a house is impure. For example, here are the verses
pertaining to the impurity of houses:

“When you will come into the land of Canaan that I will give to you
for a possession, and I [i.e., God] shall put the eruption of tzara’at
in the house of the land of your possession, whoever’s house it is,
shall come and tell to the priest, saying, ‘Something like an eruption
has appeared to me in the house.’ ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:34-35)

Rashi picks up on the language of of “something like an eruption:”

“Even if he is a scholar and knows that it is certainly an eruption,
he should not decide the matter absolutely to say: ‘An eruption
appeared to me,” but “something like an eruption appeared to me.’ ”

To me, this is a lovely teaching. People have their domains of
expertise and authority in a community, and there is a certain
humility in respecting somebody else’s position, even if one knows
perfectly well what a particular answer or outcome may be. We might
call this an example of derech eretz, sometimes translated as “good
manners” but really connoting a sensitive thoughtfulness about
conducting fully compassionate relationships. Living with derech
eretz, in turn, builds up a sense of moral dependability and safety
within the community.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t express our opinion
about things which affect us, nor am I saying that we should blindly
submit to authority in all circumstances. Rather, I’m saying that
communities are usually set up in such a way that people have
positions which they have earned or been granted, and that respecting
those positions can inculcate within us the traits of humility and
grace. To take an obvious example, the synagogue president, the rabbi,
and the cantor may all have strong opinions about each other’s work,
but at the end of the day, a synagogue is stronger when its leaders
have respect for the offices of their colleagues.

In the parsha commentary, a Torah scholar had to acknowledge the role
of the priest in certain situations, which is pretty amazing when you
consider that Rashi and his buddies were all Torah scholars. In other
words- to show derech eretz, they honored the office of priest. All of
us could do well to think about how we show others the respect and
courtesy which dignifies both parties in a relationship. It might be
teachers, clergy, public officials, or the person who bags your
groceries- but in each case, we can choose to act in ways that honor
their soul, and ours. It’s not just good manners- right relationships
are the work of the spirit, and a lifelong project.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

As usual, you can fine a summary and further commentary (including
another from yours truly) here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

and the complete text of the double parsha and wonderful Conservative
commentaries here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/tazria_index.htm

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