Archive for Tazria/Metzora

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/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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