Archive for Tazria

Tazria: Seeing Ourselves

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/ Shabbat HaHodesh

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 13:2)

Good morning!

This week’s Torah portion is difficult, concerned mostly with scaly skin eruptions and the ritual impurities of garments. However, as I and many others have written about (here and here, for example), it’s important to note that the Jewish tradition has always seen these skin afflictions as the outward manifestation of an inner condition, perhaps the sin of gossip, in one view, or more generally a kind of spiritual unreadiness to be in community after encountering the boundaries of life and death.

This metaphorical reading of the scabs and skin eruptions is important to keep in mind when we look at the verse above, which reminds us that one cannot “diagnose” these problems in oneself or another. The person with the eruption must be brought to the priest. Again, see links above for my comments in the past on this, but for today let’s just say that the Torah seems to be teaching us how hard it is to truly see ourselves, and how sometimes the job of spiritual leadership is to help us see ourselves more honestly- after all, we’re all blemished in some way or another! The Talmud, in Mishnah Negaim, explicitly uses the language of “seeing” to teach that we cannot “see” certain problems in ourselves, but must go to another to be truly “seen.”  Note as well that in Biblical times, this role was reserved for the priest, but today might be a spiritual leader, wise elder, trusted friend or specialized counselor- the priestly role can be assumed by anyone with humility, love and compassion.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra pointed out that in the verse above, the one who is to be brought to the priest is adam, a human, rather than an Israelite, citizen, or even just “man.” He reads this to teach that anybody, Israelite or not, must be brought to the priest if they have a scaly skin blemish. One would instantly ask why a non-Israelite would be brought to the priest for purification, since they have no obligation to be ritually pure for bringing sacrifices, so Ibn Ezra says all humans are brought to the priest lest an Israelite contracts impurity through them.

On the other hand, contra Ibn Ezra, perhaps the verse says adam, human, because it’s reminding us that it’s a universal truth that people need help “seeing” themselves; by definition, we don’t know when we’re self deceived. (See, for example, psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the fundamental attribution error). For all of us who are adam, humankind, it’s much easier to see the blemishes of others and hard to see our own; thus the Torah teaches that we must not rush to judge others but help them find those they can trust and do the same ourselves. The Mishnah quoted above wisely suggests that we can’t even see the blemishes in our own families, presumably because we’re too close and can’t be even slightly objective.

The good news, of course, is that our Torah portion isn’t about proclaiming others as blemished or plagued, but finding healing from that which afflicts us all. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody goes through cycles when we feel more or less distant from our better selves. The Torah says: see each other like priests, with a heart of love and service, to bring each other back into relationship with God and community. This is what it means to be adam, a human being.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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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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Tazria: The Non-Rush To Judgement

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

Greetings from Swampscott, where it’s almost spring!

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the next two Torah portions are among the most
difficult of the yearly Torah readings, because the topics seem both arcane and highly
anachronistic. This week’s parsha, Tazria, begins with laws of tumah,
or ritual impurity- which means separation from areas considered holy- in the
period after childbirth. The next few chapters deal with scaly skin blemishes,
which must be examined by the priests in order to declare a person ritually pure
and thus able to rejoin the community in its religious life.

You can find the text of the Torah portion and the special
pre-Passover maftir (concluding Torah reading) and haftarah here:

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

Clearly, we do not look to the Torah for medical knowledge- the one
thing that all contemporary commentators agree upon is that the scaly skin blemishes described in Vayikra/ Leviticus are not the disease we call “leprosy,”
(Hansen’s Disease), but that’s where the agreement ends. Some believe that the Torah implies that such blemishes were understood as the manifestation of spiritual
condition, perhaps indicating a supernatural punishment, while others think that they were a morally neutral physical phenomenon. Furthermore, the very idea of “ritual impurity” and the concomitant exclusion from sacred areas is foreign to our sense of what is “natural” (like bodily fluids or skin blemishes) and our very legitimate desire to be maximally inclusive in our communal practice.

So what DO we do with these passages? How do we, with our modern
medical knowledge and inclusive ethical sensibilities, deal with verses about
the blood of childbirth and menstruation, scaly skin blemishes and discolored
hairs? One classic line of interpretation sees the scaly skin disease as Divine
punishment for misdeeds. While such midrashim (creative or homiletic Biblical interpretations) help us understand what the ancient sages considered to be an ethical and upright life, I’m personally left unsatisfied. I want to forge a more direct
relationship to the text of the Torah itself, if possible, and not only read it through the lens of such strong moral symbolism.

So returning to the text itself, with its vivid descriptions of
bodily fluids, scabs, lesions, and discolored skin, I’m struck by how carefully the Torah lays out a program for connection between the elite of ancient society (the
kohanim, or priests) and those who might be the outcasts (people in various states of
ritual impurity.) The Torah says, very clearly, that a primary job of the religious and
social leadership is to work with those in greatest danger of being shunned. Not only that, but the Torah also clearly and unequivocally commands the priests to see each
person as an individual, examining them down to the smallest hair or patch of
skin, in order to bring them back into the community if at all possible.

Remembering that what is true for the priesthood is now true for
entire people of Israel, (since there is no longer a priesthood, as such) I think one
way we can read parshat Tazria is to see an ethic of caring for individuals
underneath a sea of specific rules. That ethic goes something like this: When someone is in distress, don’t rush to judgement, but look carefully at each person, right down to the details of specific circumstances. Don’t judge people if it’s not your job to judge- remember, only the priest could declare that someone had the kind of scaly skin blemish which required temporary separation. Finally, precisely where there is potential for people to feel cast out or marginalized, that’s where the Torah wants us to pay close attention to our thoughts and actions.

Parshat Tazria might be the hardest parsha of the Torah, but not, I
think, because its subject matter is so distant from our contemporary frame of
reference. I think Parshat Tazria may be the hardest parsha of the Torah because what it’s asking us to do – refrain from quick judgement, see people as individuals, and always reach out to those on the margins- is a life-long process, a challenge to each of us which is central to our evolving spiritual maturity.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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Tazria/Metzora 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria/Metzora

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

OVERVIEW

The next two parshiyot deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being “unclean” physically, but was a spiritual state which prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction which is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but rather something that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A negah is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.

It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.

IN FOCUS

“The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh….and declare him ritually impure.” (Leviticus 13:3)

PSHAT

Let me say again: the system of purity and impurity was about religion, not about disease, per se. The priests were to examine certain kinds of skin blemishes and make a declaration that someone was either ritually pure or impure, in which case that person had various kinds of rituals to perform, depending on the severity of the impurity.

DRASH

What strikes me about this verse is that only the priests were to declare someone ritually impure- this was not a matter for just anybody to decide. (Cf. Deuteronomy 21:5, for example.) It’s easy to understand why: if neighbors were allowed to declare each other impure, there could be all kinds of panic and nasty recriminations, and people might use this weapon for personal gain or revenge. It’s hard to be objective about someone’s problems if your life is bound up in theirs- even today, the mental and physical health professions insist on certain boundaries around the personal relations of patients and caregivers.

Reminding ourselves that tzara’at was the physical manifestation of a spiritual condition, I’d like to suggest that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the fact that the Torah authorizes only the priests to make a judgment of impurity. All too often, we think we know what’s going on with another person: they eat too much, they drink too much, they’re too lazy, they’re workaholics, they’re too permissive/too strict with their children, they should do this, they should do that. . . . the list goes on and on.

Quite often, however, we simply can’t, and mustn’t, judge the spiritual, physical, or moral condition of another person- we usually don’t have all the facts. We may not be experts, and personal relationships may make objectivity impossible. We might declare another person “outside the camp,” because of their behavior or appearance, but we might be seeing only the outside appearance of things, without the subtleties. To me, the Torah’s message in this verse is: don’t think you can diagnose your neighbor’s problems so easily.

Of course, it’s also true that a person cannot declare themselves a metzora, either. Denial can work in two ways: we can refuse to see a problem in ourselves, until we are presented with unavoidable, straightforward evidence, and we can also think things are worse than they are, until someone else tells us there is real hope. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have real insight into our own problems, and the problems of those around us- I’m only suggesting that sometimes it pays to leave the exact diagnosis of a mental, spiritual or physical condition to those who can be both objective and helpful. A busybody thinks they know what’s wrong with everybody around them; a compassionate and loving person sees that people get the help they need, without presuming that they themselves have all the answers.

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Tazria 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tazria

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

The next two parshiyot deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being “unclean” physically, but was a spiritual state which prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction which is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but what the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A nega is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.

It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.

IN FOCUS

“The person who has tzara’at, who has an impure affliction, shall tear his clothes, and shave his head, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips, and he shall cry ‘Impure! Impure!’ ” (Leviticus 13:45)

PSHAT

The metzora, as explained above, was understood to convey ritual impurity; the Torah seems to be teaching here that such a person must dress and behave in such a way that the ritual impurity would not be conveyed to others.

DRASH

The post-Biblical rabbis understood tzara’at to be Divine punishment for sin, specifically the sin of slander. My sense is that they, too, found the rules of purity and impurity obscure, and probably even asked themselves: if tzara’at were not a result of sin, of what use would all those pages of regulation be to us today, when we have no priesthood to solve the problems of ritual impurity and affliction?

Even without making the big midrashic leap from skin disease to slander, we still find in the traditional commentaries a desire to see in the law of skin afflictions a deep compassion that they believed was central to the Torah’s values. Our verse above, at first glance, seems cruel and shaming to the unfortunate metzora; it’s bad enough that he has a skin affliction, but the Torah makes him go through the camp with torn clothes proclaiming his problem to everybody?

Thus the Talmud interprets this verse as teaching that the afflicted person’s publicizing of his plight was not to bring him shame, but to bring him the prayers and compassion of the community. (Moed Katan 5a; Sotah 32b; quoted in a collection of commentaries called Love Your Neighbor, by Zelig Pliskin) The hope was that the people who heard of the metzora’s problem would pray for him, and perhaps thus speed his recovery. In one of the two places in the Talmud where this interpretation occurs, it even goes so far as to generalize that anybody who is suffering should make their suffering known, so that the community may come to pray for them. (Sotah 32b)

Perhaps we can understand this teaching more broadly. Almost everybody has a problem they don’t want anybody else to know about, and I’d be willing to bet that in most such cases, the problem is more common than the sufferer thinks. A classic example is addictive behaviors, perhaps food or sex or alcohol abuse. The addict often thinks that nobody else has this problem and nobody else can understand; thus they feel ever more shamed and secretive about the state they’re in. The first step in recovery is to admit honestly what the problem is; the truth must be brought out into the light before changes are likely to happen.

The metzora crying out “Impure! Impure!” throughout the camp is a great metaphor for the person who can admit without shame that they have a problem. Once they can say, in public, in front of their friends and family, what their problem is, then they can seek help with the support of their community, and hopefully grow from the experience. Such a problem doesn’t have to be as dramatic or life-threatening as alcoholism or drug abuse; we simply have to be willing to name the truth about ourselves. The other side of the equation is that we need to react with prayer and compassion to anyone making such an admission. Radical honesty is a key to spiritual growth, and with a little help from our friends and from the Healing One, even the worst “affliction” may be made pure and whole again.

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