Metzorah: Honoring T’shuvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora 
 
The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:14)
 
Good morning! This week’s Torah portion is very hard to grasp. The primary topic is tzara’at, or a scaly outbreak on human skin or even human houses, which is certainly not “leprosy” as such but is better understood as a physical manifestation of a spiritual or moral condition.  Our Torah portion describes in great detail the ritual of purification and reintegration of the one afflicted, and out of that ritual, one detail stands out. 
 
As noted above, while performing the purification of the metzora, [the person with tzara’at], the priest puts some of the blood of the animal offering on the ear, thumb and toe of the person being brought back into the community. It’s easy to pass over this small part of a complex passage, but please note, the only other instance of sacrificial blood being put on the ear, thumb and big toe of a person is back in chapter 8, when Moshe performed rituals to dedicate Aharon and his sons as priests. (Cf. Vayikra 8:23-24.)
 
Let’s leave aside for today the question of why both the metzorah and the priests get ritual blood on those specific places. Instead, let’s simply take at face value that the metzorah returning to the camp is comparable to the priest being dedicated to a life of holy service. The ancient rabbis assumed that one afflicted with tzara’at had been speaking slander and gossip about others- they make a pun that metzorah is like motzie shem ra, or slander. 
 
While the connection between skin outbreaks and slandering others is clearly a post-Biblical midrash, it does add great moral weight to the comparison which the Torah itself makes between the now-purified metzorah and the dedication of the priests.  Looking at the rituals with the perspective of the ancient sages, we see that one who was sent outside the camp, presumably to reflect on his misdeeds and repent of the harm he caused others, is admitted back into the camp with great and serious ceremony- because that’s how much Judaism honors t’shuvah, reflecting on our deeds and making amends when we must. 
 
There is a teaching that a ba’al tshuvah, one who has turned his life around, stands in a place that even the purely righteous one cannot. This is why the Torah compares the returning metzorah to the inauguration of the priests: a truly repentant person is on a spiritual level worthy of the same great honor given to the High Priest, who makes atonement for the entire people. 
 
Seen this way, the complicated purification rituals make moral sense. The rituals show us what to take seriously, what we should honor:  namely, mercy, forgiveness,  reconciliation, and t’shuvah. These are among the greatest virtues to which we can aspire. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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