Archive for Metzora

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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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,

RNJL

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Tazria-Metzora: Hidden Treasures

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Tazria-Metzora

The double portion Tazria-Metzora is one of the most difficult in the Torah. It begins with laws concerning bodily fluids and goes on to discuss manifestations of ritual impurity, both on people and houses.

Greetings!

Towards the end of this week’s double portion, we learn that tzara’at, or scaly outbreaks, can occur on buildings as well as people. Once that happens, the priest has to come look at the house, and if it’s really tzara’at, then it’s scraped off or the stones affected are removed. If it comes back- the house may have to be destroyed. (Cf. Vayikra 14:33-45)

Our friend Rashi notices a theological problem in the verse introducing this section of laws:

“When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place a lesion of tzara’ath upon a house in the land of your possession . . . . . ” (14:34)

Rashi notices that the verse implies that God will give or place the tzara’at on the houses, and answers the implicit question: why would God bring the Israelites to a good land and then put plagues upon their houses?

His answer (which is from an earlier midrash):

“This is good news for them that lesions of tzara’at will come upon them because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he will demolish the house and find them.”

With this midrash, Rashi turns our lesson inside out: instead of a set of ancient purity rules about plagues and punishments, our verse teaches us about looking for hidden treasure hidden under seemingly unpleasant things. What seems like a punishment might- if you remove the outer layers and demolish old structures – reveal gold. The image of walls coming down and treasure being revealed suggests to me that the real plague is not on the skin, but is our negativity, cynicism, resentment, or jealousy- which, when we tear them down, can often allow much more beautiful things to emerge.

This understanding also fits with the traditional interpretation that the metzora– the one afflicted with the outbreak- is afflicted because he spoke motzie shem ra, or slander about others. When that metaphor is a applied to a building, perhaps it suggests that when we tear down mental structures afflicted by cynicism and resentment, new and unexpected things will emerge, which we would never find without the decision to declare certain things impure and worthy of removal. Hidden treasures, tucked away behind yucky walls- what might we find upon close inspection of our houses, our communities, and ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Metzora: Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora

We’re reading the parsha called Metzora, which
is mostly about skin lesions (not “leprosy” as per the older
translations) and the resulting ritual impurity- which, in Biblical
times, would have kept a person with such problems outside various
sacred or regular areas, depending on exactly what’s going on. Persons
with certain kinds of scaly patches- called “tzara’at”- had to shave
and be purified in water before returning to the camp:

“On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard,
and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his
clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. . . . ”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 14:9)

This verse, which prescribes water as the ritual of renewal and
spiritual healing, is one of the sources from which we derive the
practice of mikvah, or ritual bath. A mikvah must be “living water,”
which means river water, melted ice, ocean or lake water, or
rainwater, as opposed to “drawn water,” which is well water or tap
water. Most modern mikvaot (plural) have the minimum requirement of
“living water” in one collection area which joins a drainable tub
which is filled with regular water- when the two meet through removing
a plug, it’s as if the entire amount of both pools is “living water.”

In post-Biblical Judaism, when the idea of ritual impurity is no
longer operable, the two main uses of mikvah have been for conversion
and the practice of “taharat hamishpacha,” or “family purity,” meaning
the refraining from marital relations during and after a woman’s
menstrual cycle, until such a time as she immerses in a mikvah. (Cf.
Vayikra 12 and 15.)

A sofer, or scribe, also immerses prior to writing the letters of a
Torah scroll. some Jewish men go before Shabbat, or before the Days of
Awe, or even daily, in the spirit of the laws governing bodily purity.
One commentator (Sefer HaHinnuch) points out that mikvah is not like
other positive commandments, in that one only has to go to a mikvah if
one wishes to be immersed and renewed. That is, the commandment is
not: you must go to a mikvah, but rather says, if you wish to rejoin
the camp, as it were, mikvah is the way to do it.

Books, articles, poems and sermons have been written on the symbolism
of mikvah, and these are widely available on the internet and any
Jewish bookstore. For today, we will merely note that Judaism is far
from the only religion which uses water as a powerful symbol of
renewal and rebirth: think of Hindus and the Ganges or Muslims washing
before prayer, for example. I believe that sacred water is a spiritual
archetype, a deep symbol of the possibility of a renewed spirit, of
forgiveness and rebirth. As such, mikvah is a practice that is open to
all Jews- not only for the practice of family purity or conversion but
as a place where our thoughts can be made new and our souls oriented
towards the deepest connections with God and all life.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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
reintegration.

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
awaits.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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Metzorah: The Imperative of Inclusion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzorah

Greetings from sunny- but not yet warm- Swampscott!

This week we continue our study of the laws of scaly skin blemishes; the parsha
begins with a discussion of how the metzorah [person afflicted with a skin
blemish] is ritually purified, and then goes on to describe what happens if a “plague”
[visible discolorations or growths] appears in a house. The portion concludes with the ritual impurity imparted to one – male or female- who has certain kinds of genital emissions.

Last week I proposed that underlying this complex set of rules about bodily
functions (or dysfunctions, as the case may be) is an ethic of caring for individuals and preserving their dignity. This week, I’d like to bolster my case by pointing out
that the rules for ritual purification of a metzorah make a distinction between the
requirements for wealthy and poor persons. A person of means brings a total of three animals for sacrifice at the end of his week of separation. (See verse 14:10, which you can find here: < http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/parashah/index.shtml >)

However, a poor person is only required to bring one animal, as we read a few
verses later:

But if he is of insufficient means and cannot afford [these sacrifices], he
shall take one [male] lamb as a guilt offering for a waving to effect atonement for him, and one tenth [of an ephah] of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal offering, and a log of oil. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 14:21)

The less wealthy person’s offering for ritual purification is about a third as
much as the regular offering – which may seem like a rather subtle point of ritual
practice, but has huge ethical implications in a wider context. The Torah is, after all,
understood to be Divine revelation (however we understand that process to be mediated), and thus we’re left with the rather non-negotiable conclusion that God cares about people of differing financial means being fully included in the religious life of the Jewish community.

This religious imperative to make the spiritual centers of Jewish life inclusive
and sensitive to financial issues speaks directly to a problem in our community,
which is the feeling among many Jews (with whom I speak almost every week) that they’re not welcome in our synagogues, schools and institutions unless they can pay high levels of dues or contributions. I understand that many synagogues and other
organizations try as best they can to grant abatements, but what strikes me
about our Torah portion is that the policies of inclusiveness are made known to all.
It is simply announced that “if he is of insufficient means, this is what he will
bring,” and left at that. This contrasts sharply with the various procedures (interviews, tax form reviews, etc.) we use in contemporary Jewish life to determine if somebody “needs” an abatement, which often produce great resentment, anger and shame (again, I hear about this almost every week).

The challenge of funding Jewish life, while at the same time making it
accessible to all who seek it, is not simple. Many congregations have instituted “fair share” dues, which can be a sliding scale according to income or a percentage of income which everyone pays. There are many other ways in which we could live out our spiritual ideals of inclusiveness and dignity, but the larger point is that our attempts to build spiritual community fail if they are not sensitive to diversity of means.

To put it another way, one of the reasons Judaism insists that spirituality
happens within community is precisely so that we we learn how to care for others, as God cares for us, and in so doing, become more fully aware of the Divine image
within ourselves and others. If the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the
metzorah of insufficient means was to be welcomed into the most sacred spaces and rituals, then surely we can find a way to make sure that Jews all along the financial
spectrum feel truly welcome in every organization dedicated to Jewish life.

RNJL

PS- The Reconstructionist movement, in particular, has done good work to help
connect finances and religious values in congregational life. You can find
texts,
teachings and discussions of how to make Jewish life more inclusive here:

http://www.jrf.org/cong/res-money-cong-life-main.html

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