Tazria/Metzora: Temporary Unreadiness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora

Greetings! We have a double portion this Shabbat,
Tazria/Metzora, both of which are largely concerned with “tumah,” or
ritual impurity, which affects one’s ability to enter sacred areas or
even stay within the Israelite camp, until it is removed through
ritual, washing, and time. Tumah, or impurity, is not a moral or
medical condition, but a spiritual state which comes about through
contact with blood, bodily fluids, death, certain skin conditions, or
the appearance of a kind of “plague” or outbreak on cloth or the walls
of a house.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth clarifying again:
what is commonly translated as a “plague” or “leprosy” is, in its
Biblical context, not a disease, nor some biological phenomenon, nor a
manifestation of sin or moral failure, but rather some kind of
spiritual condition. Thus, the priest was called in to see the person,
and when the conditions were right, to perform rituals of healing and
re-integration for the one affected by ritual impurity.

As practices and concepts, “tumah” (the state of impurity or inability
to enter certain sacred or communal areas – some like the word
“incongruity” with the spiritual center) and “taharah” (the state of
ritual purity and readiness) are pretty far removed from our lives in
the year 5767. Thus, another way to read these texts is as metaphor
for the inevitable waxing and waning of spiritual “readiness” in a
person’s life. Sometimes I make choices, (not all of which are “sins”
as such), and sometimes I am affected by external events, which may
leave me feeling estranged from community, or from God, or even
estranged from my own core values and best self.

At other times I feel profoundly connected to my community, to myself,
to my loved ones, to God, and to the entire web of life on this
beautiful planet. That feeling of deep connection to God and others
is, in my experience, not something that happens “24/7,” which is why
it rings true to me that our Torah portion seems to think that the
state of tumah/impurity and taharah/readiness are part of life, with
rituals and principles for helping people experience renewal and

One Hassidic commentary draws attention to the last verse of
Vayikra/Leviticus 14: “and this instructs for the day of impurity
[b’yom hatameh] and the day of purity [b’yom hatahor]- This is the
Torah of afflictions!” [14:57, my translation.] The commentary points
out that “this is the Torah of afflictions” [tzara’at] applies on both
days of purity and impurity- that is, Torah study can be a source
of strength and renewal during both good times and bad, times when
we’re feeling connected and times when we’re not. Perhaps this is
because Torah study is inherently dialogical- even just studying a
text, one is participating in the historical community of those who
have struggled with the same texts and interpretations, and are thus
never bereft of spiritual community.

It’s no sin to go through various states of readiness in our
spiritual lives- in fact, it’s to be expected. Sometimes something
happens – perhaps for some the tragic events in Virginia- that may
sap a sense of meaning in our lives or a feeling of connection to
other and to God. The good news is that even in the Torah,
tumah/impurity was a temporary state- with attention from the priests,
ritual immersion, and the passage of time, the tameh (person with
tumah) found renewal and re-integration. Thus, to me, the overarching
message of Tazria/Metzora is affirmative: we may feel temporarily
distance from community, God, or even self, but reconnection always

Shabbat Shalom,


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