Parashat Tazria-Metzora

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
(She Bears Seed-Infected One)

  • Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
  • II Kings 7:3 – 7:20

In the Torah portion Tazria, God instructs Moses about the purification rituals for mothers following childbirth. God then describes to Moses and Aaron the procedures for identifying and responding to those infected with leprosy. In Metzora, God describes the purification ritual for people and homes afflicted with skin diseases; God also instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the laws of the emission of bodily fluids.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59

With this week’s Torah portion, we learn a great deal about the ritual function of the kohanim (priests) in helping people cope with infectious illness. Particularly the illness of ‘tzara’at,’ leprosy, becomes the focus of sustained attention, presumably because it was quite common in the ancient Near East.

Basing themselves on a story found in the Book of Numbers, the Rabbis of the Midrash viewed leprosy as an external sign of an internal decay. The illness became a symbol of corruption, immorality, and callousness.

The link between illness and a lack of ethics arises from the story of Miriam‘s criticism of Moses’ wife for being a Cushite. Clearly, Miriam uses her sister-in-law’s ethnicity as a pretext for attacking her brother. Whereas Jewish tradition goes so far in rejecting racism that the Rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud justify Moses’ selection of an African woman as his wife, Miriam is unable to restrain her harmful comments and her corrosive bigotry.

In a condemnation that neatly parallels Miriam’s criticism that Moses’ wife is too black, Miriam is stricken with an illness that leaves her skin a flaky white. Since her ‘tzara’at’ resulted from her critical words, the Rabbis naturally associated the two.

Thus, the biblical laws of infectious disease became an extended metaphor for self-centeredness, critical or slanderous speech, and hateful deeds.

Things God Hates
Midrash Vayikra understands the law of leprosy as an allusion to seven traits the Lord hates: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked thoughts, feet that run eagerly toward evil, a false witness and one who sows discord among people. How many of these violations pertain to an irresponsible use of language!

Speaking and thinking ill of another person, construing their actions in the worst possible way, gossiping and spreading rumors which harm the reputation of another person — these activities are so widespread among our contemporaries that they no longer attract our notice at all. Yet they strike at the core of the kind of world Judaism is trying to establish. Those practices provoke a cynical disregard of human decency; they cultivate our suspicion of each other and our assumption that others are speaking ill of us behind our backs just as we are of them.

In Hebrew, such speech is called lashon hara (literally, “an evil tongue”). Lashon hara is the practice of speaking about other people, rather than speaking to them. It involves transforming a living, complex human being into a caricature — an object of evil, or sloth, or competition. In speaking ill of others, we participate in their dehumanization, initiating a process whose end is uncontainable.

Like An Arrow
In the words of the Rabbis, “A loose tongue is like an arrow. Once it is shot, there is no holding it back.” The Midrash notes that five times, the word “Torah,” teaching, is used to refer to ‘tzara’at.’ From this superfluous repetition, the sages derive that “one who utters evil reports is considered in violation of the entire five books of the Torah.”

A marvelous tale is told of a wandering merchant who came into a town square, offering to sell the elixir of life. Of course, large crowds would surround him, each person eager to purchase eternal youth. When pressed, the merchant would bring out the Book of Psalms, and show them the verse “Who desires life? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from guile.”

In an age awash in corrosive mistrust, a lack of confidence in our public leaders, and an alienating sense of loneliness and isolation, there is little hope of establishing real community until we learn to speak a new language –one of responsibility, kindness, and compassion.

Rather than spreading rumors to make others look bad, we can devise empathic explanations for why someone might have acted in a disappointing way. Rather than repeating a racist joke, we can focus attention on the shared humanity of all people. Rather than speaking about other people, we can speak to them, out of love and a desire to live in a shared community together.

By learning to channel and control our speech, we will transform our world from one of isolation and cynicism to one of community and trust. Isn’t that what the rule of God is all about?

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Commentary on Parashat Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

God spoke to Moses, saying, “This is the instruction on how to purify a leper who is healed. When the time is right, a priest shall go outside the camp to the leper’s area and confirm if the leper is healed. The priest then shall make a sacrifice with two clean, living birds. One bird is to be killed with ritual while the other is to be set free in the open country.

“The healed leper must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe in water. Then he shall be clean enough to enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent for seven days. On the seventh day, after he shaves off all the hair on his body, scrubs his clothes and washes his body, then he shall be clean.

“On the eighth day, the healed leper, two lambs without blemish, and a flour and oil offering shall be presented before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest shall ritually slaughter the lambs and use their blood and the flour and oil to make wave offerings, sin offerings, burnt offerings and guilt offerings for the leper who is to be cleansed. With ritual and ceremony, the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord. Then he shall be clean.”

Then God spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, “When you enter the land of Canaan and I inflict leprosy upon a house there, the owner shall come and tell the priest of the affliction. The priest must examine the house and pronounce the home clean or unclean. The unclean parts must be removed and replaced with clean materials. If the whole house is unclean, the house shall be torn down and its materials shall be taken to an unclean place outside the city. The house is to be rebuilt with clean materials.

“The priest will inspect the house again. If the priest pronounces the house clean of leprosy, then the priest is to perform a cleansing ritual for the house. He shall make offerings before the Lord with two clean birds. One is to be slaughtered and the other is to be set free in the open country. The priest thus affects purification for the house and it is clean.”

The Lord then spoke to Moses and Aaron and instructed them to tell the people about the laws concerning the emission of bodily fluids. There are times when a man or a woman is “clean” [in a spiritual, not physical sense] and a time when a man or a woman is “unclean.” There are specific rituals to transform a man or woman from unclean to clean.