The Object of My Affection

(Dvar Torah for Shabbat Metzora, delivered at Temple Israel on Friday evening 4/8/11) 

This Shabbat the parshat hashavua or weekly Torah portion is the second of two in a row that deal with “nega tzara’at”, translated variously in our Plaut Torah commentary as “scaly affection” or “eruptive affection” or “leprous affection.”  In last week’s Torah portion, Tazria,  the rule was stated that a person having such symptoms should be examined by a kohen (i.e., a priest descended from Moshe’s brother Aaron).  The kohen is then supposed to determine whether the person being examined does in fact have nega tzara’at.  If so, the affected person, after an initial period of being quarantined in his or her own dwelling, is then forced to dwell outside the camp for a period of time.  During both stages of this process, he or she must not enter the sanctuary or come into contact with any of the holy objects associated with the sanctuary.

This week’s Torah portion is called Metzora“Metzora” is the Hebrew term designating a person who has the affliction or “nega” of “tzara’at.”  In this week’s portion, the Torah sets out the procedure by which the metzora (ie., the person having nega tzara’at) is permitted to return to society following  his or her recovery.  And just as the kohen had been the person who performed the initial examinations that confirmed the presence of nega tzara’at – now the kohen is also the person who performs the procedures that allow the person to return to the camp.  This involves body shaving, animal sacrifices, and the smearing of blood and oil on the person who is being readmitted into the camp.

It’s all very strange, very mysterious, and very puzzling.

For centuries, Jewish commentators have puzzled over whether tzara’at is to be understood as a medical condition or a spiritual condition or both.  Are these scabs and scales signs of physical illness or moral distress?

To the extent this is about medicine, with the kohen being seen as some sort of primitive physician, a very important theme is present in the Torah.  On several different occasions, the Torah specifies less expensive sacrificial animals if a person is poor and cannot afford the standard prescribed animals.  And so we might see in these details a call to all of us to make sure that health care in contemporary society is adequately available to the poor.  And we would want to be sure that our elected representatives at both the state and national levels understand this.  Even as we gather here tonight, this battle wages on in the Minnesota legislature and in the United States Congress over what sort of a society we will be – and over how we will bring our religious values to bear in the formation of public budgetary priorities.

From a more spiritual perspective, a number of the commentators see nega tzara’at not as (or not only as) a physical malady but as a spiritual one.  A classic formulation of this teaching is found in Tractate Arachin of the Talmud:

אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב (ויקרא יד) זאת תהיה תורת המצורע זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע

“Resh Lakish said:  What is the meaning of the verse: “This shall be the ritual concerning the metzora”.   (Lev. 14:2) It means “this shall be the ritual concerning “motzi shem ra” (one who speaks calumny)” (Arachin 15b)

In other words -- one who speaks ill of another, one who engages in lashon hara/ evil speech.

This connection between “motzi shem ra” (“slander”) and metzora (“skin affliction”) is also seen by our commentators in the story of Miriam becoming afflicted with tzara’at in Numbers chapter 12 after she and Aaron express indignation at Moses marrying a Cushite or Ethiopian woman.  As it says: 

י  וְהֶעָנָן, סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל, וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם, מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג; וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מִרְיָם, וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.

10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous (Hebrew: “metzora’at”), as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous. (Hebrew: “metzora’at”)

And, indeed, it’s a well-worn trope for rabbis on the Shabbatot of Tazria and Metzora to preach about the evils of lashon hara and of the importance of ethical speech and the avoidance of gossip and slander. 

What actually is lashon hara?  One definition I encountered that spoke to me is that lashon hara is when you talk ABOUT a person rather than TO that person. 

And I know that every single one of us is guilty of doing this, as often as we might try to avoid it.  So, it’s an ongoing challenge.

This year when studying the parasha, I’ve found myself most interested in the relationship between the metzora(‘at) and the kohen – between the person who gets the skin affliction and the priest who comes to bring him or her back to society at the end of his or her time of isolation.

A contemporary commentator, Rabbi Eli Mansour, suggests that Torah assigns the task of the metzora’s purification specifically to the kohen because the metzora had been spreading gossip and slander ABOUT the kohen.  

As I see it, the Torah forces the slanderer to work together with the person he or she slandered.  The Torah seems to want to find a way for each of us to encounter the other in their full humanity. 

And how does this happen?  In what is for me the most striking detail of the parasha – the kohen symbolically makes the metzora into a fellow kohen:

In Leviticus chapter 8 when Aaron and his sons were invested as priests the Torah says that Moses took the blood of ram of the ordination offering and “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot” (Lev. 8:23).  Now in Parshat Metzora it says that, in this ritual of returning the healed metzora to society, the kohen “shall take some of the blood of the reparation offering, and the kohen shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of the one who is being purified, and on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot.”  (Lev. 14: 14) 

And after that the kohen sprinkles oil just like had been done at his own ordination, and even puts some oil on the head of the person being purified as if the latter were being anointed as a kohen too.

This healing, this purification, this reintegration seems very personal indeed.  The Torah seems to be telling us that whenever we have a gripe with a neighbor, a colleague, a loved one – we need to remember how we are connected to one another.  We need to struggle against the impulse to bad mouth one another, to objectify one another, to distance ourselves from one another.  True, distance may be called for at first – a time out, a time to reflect, a time to repent.

But then we have to come together again and come back into the camp.

We need to anoint one another, to see one another as fellow servants of God.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg 5771/2011

Posted on April 13, 2011 .