A decade ago, I had an insight that I probably should have had sooner. Like others, I had been so caught up trying to find the modern relevancy in these two parashiyot, and too blinded by the more accepted interpretations and rationalizations, that I had missed the forest for the trees. As I wrote ten years back, our readings of Tazria and M’tzora will forever be illuminated/tainted (chose your verb) by the later rabbinic interpretations that read these skin conditions as a physical manifestation for a moral failure, most often associated with “gossiping” (based on word play with the Hebrew of the word m’tzora – one who has tzara’at (whatever that really is – leprosy, or a variety of other skin conditions) and the phrase motzi shem ra, a colloquialism describing a person who gossips (literally, bringing forth [from another’s] name evil, thus read as “giving another a bad name.”) To the rabbis and sages, tzara’at was an outer affliction of certain inner bad behaviors, notably slandering, gossiping, lying, plotting to kill, quick to do evil, being a lying witness, or causing others to fight.
Similarly, the tzara’at that affected clothing, linens, and the stone walls of houses are “marks by G”d” that indicate one who has moral failures. Thus, if your clothes or house were affected, you must be guilty of something.
I do believe these ideas taint our view of these parashiyot. Knowing what we do these days about bio-feedback, it is not out of the realm of possibility that one’s inner guilt or other issues might cause some physical symptom. Yet, in general, the idea that our inner moral failures are the cause of leprosy and other skin eruptions and conditions, and that G”d would mark those who sin by causing their clothing or houses to be moldy just don’t square with our modern understanding of “the way things work.” (Not that there aren’t those in this world who might be perfectly happy believing what the rabbis and sages taught.)
And so we tend to dismiss these parashiyot as irrelevant, dated, out of touch. For many, they are. I have written many times in the past of valuable lessons that we can draw from these sometimes troubling and odd parashiyot, but there’s one thing even I had overlooked until musing about these parashiyot some 10 years ago..
Yes, Tazria and M’tzora describe how to determine if a person, linen, clothing or house has tzara’at. Yet all of those processes of determination (i.e. diagnosis) are but a prelude to what comes next: the cure. The underlying assumption throughout these parashiyot is that those who develop these conditions and are thus impure can be made pure again. Had the culture truly been as primitive as some think it was, they could just as well decided to kill anyone who developed tzara’at as the quickest and most efficient way to keep the community pure.
There are rituals which one who has tzara’at must undergo in order to become pure again-but they can become pure again. Even if we apply the rabbinic interpretation, then perhaps doing t’shuva for one’s moral failings is the equivalent of the priestly rituals and sacrifices used to make someone pure. And, as the rabbis teach us, t’shuva is always possible.
That is one lesson we can draw from these parashiyot – that one who is impure can become pure again; one who has done wrong can make t’shuva and become right again. And the other lesson I think we can draw is that when we ourselves fall into patterns of bad or negative behaviors, to remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It will almost always require effort on our part to get back to a place where our behaviors are more positive-the point is to not give up hope. Remember that, the next time you cheat on your diet, the next time you find yourself unthinkingly engaging in gossip, the next time you cheat on your taxes, the next time you break out in a rash.
I am not so naïve as to believe that the bad things that happen to us can always be made to go away. Diseases can be terminal, medical conditions can be life-long, etc. (Though I would point out that the occasional case of spontaneous remission does occur. In addition, it’s not just miracles and unexplained phenomena. Modern medical science, especially now that we have entered the age of gene-level therapy, has come a long way at providing, or being on the cusp of providing cures for ailments long thought incurable.)
So, too, is modern medicine and science beginning to reveal to us that matters of the mind, the heart, and the spirit can have profound effect upon our physical state. Not that we haven’t known this for a long time. No one pooh-poohed the idea that stress could bring about stomach ulcers. Is it such a stretch to imagine that internal feelings of guilt, discomfort, despair, stress, etc. could manifest themselves in internal and external physical ways in our bodies? So our ancestors, and the rabbis might not have been so off the mark. While “lie detectors” are not fully reliable, there are still measurable galvanic and other stress responses that our bodies can and do manifest when we attempt to deceive.
We get further afield, however, when we jump to the idea of our internal psychological state having an impact upon the places where we live or work. Oh, there are pseudo-scientific explorations of this concept in lots material these days. Things like “What the Bleep Do We Know” and the work of others suggesting that quantum theory, superposition, quantum uncertainty enable human beings to have directed (and possibly even intentional) impact upon the physical world with their minds and thoughts.) As intrigued as I am by such ideas, and as open as I remain to exploring them, my scientific side still feels compelled to reject them as being pseudo-science at best. Then again, I could be wrong.
From whence did our ancestors get the idea that mold and other physical signs of rot and decay on walls, houses, fences, utensils, etc. could be caused by the impurity of those who live within use, and encounter them. The idea of a leper causing leprous-like symptoms to appear on the walls of a stone house seems absurd on its face from our modern viewpoint. I’m not even sure how sensible it seemed to our ancestors.
Of course the Torah doesn’t suggest that people cause their house to become beset with an “eruptive plague” In fact, G”d states “when I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house…” (Lev. 14:34.) However, the Torah does state that such a plague upon a house can cause those who live or venture inside it to become impure. We get into some pretty convoluted logic when we suggest that people who happened to live in or wander into a house with an eruptive plague have done so because they bear some inner guilt or shame for some sin they have committed. The Torah says that the priest makes “expiation for the house.” (Lev 14:53) It goes on to say that all such eruptive plagues – whether on houses or cloth, require examination by a priest. Lev 14:54-57.) The point is, once again, that which has become impure can be made pure again.
It doesn’t happen automatically, like Esmerelda in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” becoming a virgin again with each new moon. There is ritual, there is ceremony, there are requirements, there is expiation. But what became impure can be made pure again. (The Torah sidesteps the question of whether or not something that was impure to begin with can be made pure. There’s a whole other musing in that question. Not to mention that “original sin” concept in Christianity. In some Christian understandings, it took a significant act on the part of G”d t make expiation for us all, because we were all tainted to start. I think the Torah takes a different viewpoint. While humankind is forced from gan eden, there appears to be no assumption that humanity is perforce impure. Were that the case, there could have been no Aaronic priesthood. There are physical conditions that could prohibit one from serving as a priest, but those of the priestly line were assumed pure enough to serve otherwise.)
I’m wandering far afield, as usual.
So, in summary, many of the negative physical and spiritual things that happen to us, whether we bring them upon ourselves, or they simply happen to us, can be cured. Once impure does not mean forever impure. There’s a lesson and a reminder to keep with us always. That is the oft overlooked lesson in these parashiyot. We should take them to heart.
©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Tazria-Metzora 5775 – Singing a Song of Leprosy Again
Tazria-M’tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 – We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 – Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M’tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 – Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Students
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5774 – Fifty Fifty
Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 – It’s Good To Be the King
Tazria 5768 – Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven…
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot