D'Var Torah for Tazria-Metzora Leviticus 12.1-15.33
This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12.1-15.33. It is one of the more challenging sections, dealing with the response toward events of nature classified under tzara’at or scaly conditions. Conditions characterized as tzara’at were viewed with fear, horror, disgust even revulsion by peoples of that time. These include scaly skin diseases such as leprosy, eczema, leucoderma; events with natural childbirth, even routine discharge of blood and other bodily fluids. Don’t worry; I’m not going into the more of the details just after dinner. These Torah portions deal with the treatment of persons with the aforementioned afflictions, particularly the skin afflictions.
Tzara’atwas ritually viewed as akin to contracting a plague. People so afflicted were considered ritually impure while the skin condition was active. These skin afflictions were incorrectly termed “leprosy”. A person so afflicted was compelled to move outside of the camp for a period of time, usually one or more multiples of seven days. Such person(s) were isolated, rendered an outsider--an experience of exile, banishment, explusion and ostracism. Steps for ritual purification and re-admittance to the camp were carefully prescribed.
References to contracting this affliction were frequent in biblical narratives. One well known reference was Miriam being punished for her unjustified criticism of Moses in Numbers 12-15, by a brief attack of the skin ailment on the march toward Israel.
Most of these diseases are directly treatable today or certainly not considered afflictions worthy of isolation and ostracism. In fact, on first reading, the connection of these two portions to modern society would appear archaic and remote at best.
However, two interpretations have been advanced that have relevance to us today. One interpretation is found in our own Plaut Torah. That interpretation is that tzara’at was considered a plague, and it was natural to inquire as to the sin that evoked this divine punishment. A favorite device of midrashic preachers was to pun on metzora, or “leper” and motzi ra, or “slanderer”. This pun has been used as a Torah lesson to guard against hostile talk and gossip.
There is a second interpretation, and the one I find more intriguing—was taken from a 2010 commentary by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, current President of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. This second interpretation focuses on the treatment or stigmatizing of a group or groups of human beings as “other”. Torah provided a safety net that many in today’s society and world lack. Yes, those suffering one of the afflictions in times of the Torah and deemed ritually unclean would be banished from the camp for seven or more days…HOWEVER...priests would check in on the metzora (or “the person afflicted with tzara’at”) weekly, bringing needed comfort and sustenance. When the metzora was healed, he or she was welcomed back into the embrace of the community with a purification ritual.
Unlike the times of the Torah, we no longer isolate those suffering scaly skin ailments from the rest of society. However examples abound of isolating people or groups of people in current times and recent history with little or no recourse for rejoining society. I cite three examples, ranging one person to millions;
- First, who has not seen or themselves, or felt reluctance at times to step into a hospital to visit dying friends, or someone recovering from cancer, or someone suffering from dementia, or in recent history, the isolation faced by those suffering from AIDS?
- Second, the treatment of “poor” people in our midst—displays that include thinly veiled discrimination, contempt, dismissal and lack of compassion for various disadvantaged segments of our society by both individuals and our “so-called” leaders, our elected officials, particularly at the national level—of course, I’m speaking of the treatment of the long-term unemployed, underemployed, undocumented immigrants or members of minority groups.
- The third, and most horrific example of isolation is commemorated by today’s Yom HaShoah, a day devoted to recalling the darkest chapter in our history, the Holocaust, indeed in the history of humankind. What bigger message is there in the Holocaust than the danger implicit in treating anyone, or any group, as “The Other”?
I referred earlier to Miriam’s affliction with tzara’at in Numbers 12:15. She was shut out of the camp for seven days, yet the people in her camp did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. What does one learn from this? We should learn that the circle of caring which is engrained in each of us and modeled by our nuclear families should be expanded to include many others. The Israelites in the wilderness numbered well over two million people. They could not all have each possibly known Miriam personally, yet they had learned to care about “the Other”.
So in closing, we should consider whom we include in our circle of caring. Who else should be included? And finally, how far can we enlarge that circle? The more this circle can be enlarged—from congregation to neighborhood, neighborhood to city, city to state, state to country, country to region, region to the world, the greater the likelihood that we avoid cataclysmic events as the Holocaust. This would be the modern day analogy to the purification and healing process exemplified in the Torah.