Metzorah: The Cycle of Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘This shall be the ritual for the metzorah on the day of his purification. . . . ‘ “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:2)

It’s good to be back at my desk after a week away, but I do wish I had an easier Torah portion with which to re-start my commentaries. The portion Metzorah and the previous portion, Tazria (the two are usually read together), are difficult sections of the Torah because the laws and ideas of ritual impurity are so seemingly foreign to a modern sensibility. The ancient rabbis saw ritual impurity- tumah– as indicative of a moral flaw or failing, but the Torah itself doesn’t seem to condemn the ritually impure person. This impurity separates a person from the holy areas of the Israelite camp, or the entire camp itself, and comes about through contact with death, or bodily fluids, or outbreaks on the skin. Yet in the biblical period, these things seem to happen as part of the cycle of life and death, birth and bleeding, without connection to sin, as such.

Please note: I am not saying the ancient rabbis are wrong when they connect tumah with ethics. There are layers upon layers of interpretation, but for today, it’s enough to note that the laws of the metzorah describe a cycle of separation and reintegration, rooted in a holistic conception of body and soul and community, which strikes me as an important corrective to more ethereal conceptions of spirituality. The metzorah is a person who hastzara’at, or a scaly skin outbreak. He is not a “leper” as we understand the term- this is not about disease. If it were, the Torah would warn us that many who are so afflicted would die of their condition.

The Torah doesn’t say the metzorah may die. Instead, the Torah teaches us that the metzorah will go through a ritual of separation from the community and then reintegration back into it, just as other ritually impure individuals will. I understand tzara’at not as disease, but as symbolic of an intense, embodied experience which dislocates a person from ordinary life. I believe most of us have had such experiences: perhaps a close encounter with danger or death; or fear so deep we feel it in our bones; or a jarring realization that brings sweat to the skin; or perhaps even the feelings of awe and humility which seem to shrink us where we stand.

These experiences are deeply both body and soul- there is no separate “spiritual” experience which we don’t have as creatures of flesh and blood and skin and sweat. Sometimes that puts us ill at ease  in the ordinary give-and-take of daily errands and work and relationships, and what our Torah portion reminds us is that this is natural.

Sometimes what unfolds in our lives requires us to separate, to meditate, to reflect, to integrate ourselves so that we can fully rejoin the bustling world which can seem so strange at times. Sometimes we are part of the infinite web of life, and sometimes we feel apart from it- this feeling, expressed in our bodies, is how I understand the idea of the metzorah.

To put it another way: the metzorah is not the “other,” the yucky one, who is cast out. The metzorah is any and all of us, at different times in our lives, when we are out of sync with the our surroundings and need to brought back. That cycle is ultimately about return: to community, to self, to the Sacred center of our lives, which is always awaiting us.

Shabbat Shalom,


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