By Paul Hoffman
To quote the anonymous sage, “whoever succeeds in saying something relevant about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the world.”
The entire concept of tum’ah and toharah, of ‘impurity’ and ‘purity’ is strange and difficult to understand. Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus deal with an ailment known in ancient times as tzara’at which has been traditionally translated as ‘leprosy’ but in fact refers to some sort of highly contagious lesser skin ailment. It was apparently a well known disease which was considered dangerous to the general public. The horror with which it was regarded is suggested by the total isolation and ostracism imposed by the Torah on the victim: “the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days, on the seventh day… if the affection has remained unchanged in color…the priest shall isolate him for another seven days.’ (Lev. 13, 4-5).
Beyond its identification and remedy, it is not crystal clear to me why the Torah finds it necessary to deal with the topic at all. I do not stand alone in my query as this is one of those sections of Torah which is interpreted by most major exegetes on the level of midrash; that is, as one whose meaning and true importance are not conveyed by the plain sense of the chapters themselves.
Most midrashim understand tzara’at as the punishment for evil speech, Leshon Hara. This understanding is strengthened by other places in the Torah where tzara’at is discussed. The very first citing of Leshon Hara is Exodus 4:6 “The Lord said to him (Moses) further, ‘put your hand into your bosom’…and when he took it out his hand was encrusted with snowy scales.” Rashi understands this to be God schooling Moses in the punishment of Leshon Hara, as Moses questioned the people’s readiness to believe in him as God’s chosen messenger.
The second case involves Miriam upon her speaking to Aaron about Moses’ “Cushite” wife. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married’ As the cloud withdrew…there was Miriam stricken with snow white scales.” (Num 12, 1:10) Furthermore this tradition must have been very well known as a paradigm for Leshon Hara as it was again reiterated and thus reaffirmed in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 “In cases of a skin affection…Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam…” The implicit assumption being that everyone knew the connection in Miriam’s case between the crime and punishment.
So here are my reflections for redemption from this parashah. I will begin by explaining the juxtaposition of Tazria-Metzora to the preceding parashah, Shemini, as a first step in the redemptive direction for just as we should be meticulous in the laws of kashrut, what we may ingest, so too should we take care with regard to what emerges from our lips. And rather than allowing our evil inclination to encourage our focus on discussing our jealousies (as did Miriam) and insensitivities (as did Moses), we must make every effort to explore those opportunities to overlook what we perceive as each other’s faults and find reason to speak well of one another. What a world of difference in someone’s life a compliment or a simple thank you can make. As is stated in the Talmud, ‘One who gives the indigent a perutah (a coin) is to be blessed six times, but one who encourages him with words is to be blessed eleven times.’ (Bava Batra 9b)
While it is important that we are meticulous in eradicating forbidden speech, we should not lose focus on our obligation towards positive speech. May these words help us all in our work as ‘holy vessels’ to follow in the path of Aaron and help bring peace between one another.
Paul began his fifth year this January as the Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel of Freeport, Long Island. Paul will be ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion on May 13, 2010.