This week, we read a double portion, Tazria/Mezora! I share a thought with you about the second part of the double portion below but if you would like an additional thought about the first part of the double portion, just scroll down.
The Punishment of the Emorites brings Riches to Israel
This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest. (Leviticus 14:2) So begins a detailed description of the rituals involved with purifying someone who has been afflicted with Biblical Leprosy.
The original Hebrew word used in the Bible for this leprosy is “Zaraat,” which is commonly translated as leprosy. As all modern individuals are aware, however, leprosy is a medical affliction which, since the invention of antibiotics, is fully treatable medically. In referring to “Zaraat”, the Bible discusses a purely spiritual cleansing, performed by the priest. It is clear, therefore, that the word leprosy is actually a mistranslation of the word “Zaraat” and that the disease referred to in the Bible, although similar in its physical manifestations to leprosy or some other skin disease, is actually a spiritual ailment requiring a purely spiritual cure.
Although the Bible does not mention in these chapters in Leviticus what the cause of such an affliction would be, we do have a hint of the cause in a later chapter. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite he had married… And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them… behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow” (Numbers 12:1-10).
Miriam was stricken by God with this same skin disease, clearly as a punishment for having spoken ill of her brother Moses.
God does not treat gossip lightly. As men and women created in His image, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves and to treat everyone with respect. This includes not maligning them, even in a light, gossipy way. Our sages have said that if one shames another person in public it as if he has murdered him. The import of this statement is that a person’s honor, reputation and dignity are often as important to him as his physical life. When you damage a person’s reputation, you are destroying an important part of his humanity. Similarly, when we gossip about people, we tarnish their reputation and cast a shadow upon their motivations or actions. When Miriam criticized Moses’ relationship with his wife, she did just that and she was severely punished.
The issue of Zaraat is treated at length in the midrash and other commentaries of our sages. One of these commentaries lists seven different sins which result in Zaraat. The first one is gossip and slander, as explained above. The other six are: murder, false witness, sexual depravity, a course spirit, theft and envy. These are all sins that involve offense or damage to one’s fellow human being. They all represent sins that affect societal norms and the impurity which forces the inflicted person to leave his community until he is purified represents a societal ban against him because of his anti-social behavior.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Zaraat infliction is when it affects a home rather than a person. Scripture tells us: “When you enter the Land of Canaan that I give you as a possession and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (Leviticus 14:34). In addition to the curious aspect of a house affliction, the language in this section is unique. The infliction on the house takes place only in the Land of Israel and it is a direct infliction by God. The verse reads “I inflict” in contrast to previous wordings “a person has on the skin of his body.” The infliction here is so much more personal and so much more direct.
The midrash brings a fascinating interpretation to these verses. It notes that in most cases when Scripture introduces a subject regarding entering the land, it is a festive declaration coming to inspire or encourage. In this case, however, the infliction of zaraat is hardly inspiring or encouraging.
The midrash explains: When the Emorites heard that the Israelites are about to enter the land, they hid their valuables in the walls of their houses. God said to His people: I promised your forefathers that I would bring their children to a land of plenty. What did God do? He struck the house with afflictions, the Israelite owner took apart the house and found the treasure.
This midrash turns the punishment of house afflictions into a reward for the Israelites who are entering the Land of Israel for the first time. And it reflects the spiritual reality that accompanies the entrance of the people to the Land. God promises Abraham that his children will inherit the land only after the sin of the Emorite comes due (Genesis 15:16). And this midrash, in its typically concise but figurative way, shows how God is personally involved in judging the actions of the Emorites and through the affliction to their houses, representing their punishment, brings reward and bounty to the Nation of Israel.
And here is a thought from the first portion: Tazria (Conceived Seed) Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59
This week’s portion continues the discussion of ritual purity. In last week’s portion, the instructions regarding purity revolved around various animals that are considered pure or impure. Those animals which are impure may never be eaten nor used for sacrifice. In this week’s portion, however, the instructions revolve around situations where a person will become impure through a most natural circumstance, situations that involve illness, infection, skin problems, giving birth, and menstruation. In these cases, a person is not to avoid the situation that created the impurity but must recognize the state and then take whatever steps are necessary to become pure once more. Until the individual is pure, he is prevented from approaching the Tabernacle or Temple and offering sacrifices to God.
The most serious type of impurity, however, is created as a result of coming into contact with a dead body. This impurity is actually discussed in other portions, but it is important to mention it in order to obtain a better understanding of the types of impurity mentioned in this week’s portion. In Numbers 19, God instructs the Children of Israel how to become pure after coming into contact with a dead body. Unlike the other types of impurity, only the ashes of a red heifer can bring the individual who has come into contact with a dead body to purity.
Clearly, however, ordinary individuals are not supposed to refrain from contact with a dead body. The only restriction on coming into contact with a dead body is imposed on the priests, the sons of Aaron. In Leviticus 21, God specifically instructs Aaron and his children not to come into contact with any dead body, with the exception of their immediate relatives. And the high priest is prevented from coming into contact with the remains of his closest relatives as well. From this, we learn that the impurity associated with death is the greatest impurity of all. In Jewish tradition, it is referred to as the “granddaddy of all impurities.”
Many commentaries, therefore, have looked for similarities between the impurity resulting from death and the other impurities mentioned in the chapters we are reading this week. To what extent do the causes of impurity mentioned in this portion relate to death?
In both menstruation and childbirth, there is an element of death, as strange as that may sound. When a woman menstruates, it signifies that she is not pregnant, that the ovum that she carried in her body was not fertilized, did not become a fetus, which would then become a child, and therefore a “mini-death” has occurred. Of course, there is no fault attributed to the woman, and women, naturally, spend many years of their lives menstruating and not becoming pregnant. But it is a small reminder that women have that incredible potential to create life and when that potential is not realized, it bears a small relationship to death. Hence the status of impurity.
A similar process occurs in childbirth. Although childbirth is the exact opposite of death – a new life enters this universe, as opposed to a life departing- as the child leaves the woman’s body, there is a separation that the woman experiences from something that was life within her. And, although the life being born is cause for incredible happiness, there is a small element in this situation that includes a separation from life. Many women who have given birth, will attest to this duality of feeling – the “high” that is unparalleled by any other experience in life as a new life is born, coupled with the slight sense of “down” that the pregnancy is over. Some ascribe this to post-partum blues and hormonal changes, but perhaps there is a spiritual element present as well.
When seen from this perspective, the rules of purity and impurity contained in this portion enable us to deepen our understanding of the overwhelming power of life and the overarching value that the Bible ascribes to it. Life is from God. Life is pure. And while death is natural and expected, because it represents the negation of life, it creates a status of impurity which, temporarily, distances us from God. For God is Life.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office