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Tazria- Metzora 

04/17/2021 10:11:56 AM


Irene Stern Friedman


Tazria-Metzora tells how our ancestors dealt with a skin disease called tzara’at. They were examined by the priest and, if found to be afflicted, were isolated for a period of time, generally seven days. If the ailment spread after that, “the clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, ‘impure, impure.’ The person shall be impure as long as the disease is present. Being impure, that person shall dwell outside the camp.“ Such ailments are also called “plagues,” seeing this as a kind of Divine punishment.

We are more modern. We isolated sick people and we covered more than the upper lip to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Tazria and Metzora are devoted to the Biblical notion of tumah, usually translated as “impurity.” In them, we learn three of the major sources of tumah: childbirth; tzara’at, which can manifest on skin, clothing, or the walls of one’s house; and bodily secretions. The two other primary sources of tumah are touching or carrying the carcasses of certain animals and contact with a human corpse. Some sources of ritual impurity are not blameworthy, we just get through them. 

The most common explanation of how tzara’at occurs is as a physical manifestation of our internal failings—specifically, lashon harah, or evil speech.

Miriam is struck with tzara’at because she was criticizing Moshe behind his back. A person who had spoken negatively about others is punished by having to declare his or her own uncleanliness. A person who was tamei (impure) could not enter the holy precincts until he or she was again purified

Many of the causes of ritual impurity are perfectly natural—or even praiseworthy: Burying a dead person makes you impure. But washing and burying the dead is a mitzvah. If a farmer’s donkey died, of course, the farmer had to get rid of the carcass. Torah doesn’t forbid farmers from getting rid of a dead donkey. Childbirth is a blessing but makes us impure. Ritual impurity is a normal state that is perfectly permissible in biblical law.

What the Torah does forbid, however, was entering the Holy Temple while ritually impure. Why?

Ritual impurity, may not be bad; but it is essentially un-G-dly. And so one did not walk into G-d’s home while ritually impure. We are permitted to come close to G-d, but we must remember that G-d remains infinitely different from us. We are physical, HaShem is beyond that realm.

It is difficult to acknowledge our own failings. We excuse behaviors in ourselves that we condemn in others, justifying our actions even as we are uncomfortably aware that we do not really believe we are doing the right thing. Imagine if, instead, we were forced to stand up and admit it. Imagine if we were forced to declare ourselves impure every time we felt that way on the inside. Imagine if we had a physical sign of our sins and our failings. Would this not help us change—and improve—our behaviors? While we are not struck by Tazria. anymore, the purification process might make us improve ourselves and show more compassion for the weaknesses of others.

Spreading slander destroys love and respect. Gossip harms the one who speaks it, the one about whom it is, and the one who hears it. It caused the destruction of our Second Temple. It continues to cause violence today.
Slander certainly causes a serious blemish on the soul of its speaker, but the physical manifestation of skin disease was limited to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, when the Temple stood. It was actually a sign of our closeness to G-d that He visited such a strange affliction on us at times.
We don't have that early warning system --apparent to us and to others anymore— but we know if we've spoken ill about others.
And we should turn away from this behavior. In the Torah, the stricken person is expelled from the company of others until he repents. This pushes the person to confront his evil behavior, and turn back to G-d and holiness.
"The person with tzara'at: the hair of his head shall be unshorn, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips; he is to call out: 'Impure, Impure!' All the days that the affliction is upon him he is impure. He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."
We should curb our evil inclination and behave in a way that would make our mothers and fathers and the Rabbis proud. In the meantime, we all need to pray...and to come together as Jews whatever our differences.  
May we learn this and stop being nasty and stop our evil speech.
It feels appropriate to conclude with Moses’s blessing of mercy for Miriam as she was afflicted with tzara’at and sent from the camp. El na refah na lah, “Oh G-d, please heal her!” We pray for a complete and speedy recovery for all those in need.

Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782