Thursday, 07 Apr 2011

Written by Jessica Lenza

This week’s parashah, Metzora, is one of the most difficult for modern readers. It deals with the process of accepting a person healed from a serious skin disease back into the community, normal and abnormal bodily discharges, and an irregular mould infestation on clothing or the walls of houses. In a world informed by science and medicine, these laws seem archaic and irrelevant.

Particularly difficult to understand is Torat Ha-Metzora, the teaching for the one afflicted with tzara’at. Firstly, the disease of tzara’at is mysterious in and of itself. The term tzara’at has been widely mistranslated as “leprosy” for centuries. Scholars now believe that it refers to one or even many different kinds of scaly skin diseases that appeared as red or white sores on the skin.

Contrary to leprosy, tzara’at seems to have been particularly contagious. While 95% of people have a natural immunity for leprosy, a person afflicted with tzara’at, a metzora, was considered so infectious that the metzora was forced to live outside of the camp until the priest declared him/her free of the disease and he/she fulfilled the cleansing ritual outlined at the beginning of our parashah.

Secondly, the term tzara’at is the same term to describe the growth of mould that can appear on the walls of houses or clothing. What disease can afflict a human being in the same way it afflicts the building blocks of a home or even blemish the clothing one wears? Certainly not leprosy. The Schocken Bible says in its commentary, “The fact that the same word is used to apply to all these situations indicates that a wide concept is being applied here: how visible imperfection damages the utopia of the sacred society.”

This leads us to our third difficulty. Why does this particular disease garner so much priestly attention. Surely there were other, deadlier diseases that would have necessitated seclusion and isolation from the camp if this were an issue of physical contagion. Israelite priests were not shamans or healers. They were professionals skilled in ritual and keenly aware of the obligations of purity. The involvement of the priests in the case of the metzora, the person infected with tzara’at, seems to point to a spiritual ailment that manifests itself with physical symptoms.

The Rabbis were similarly uncomfortable with seeing tzara’at as a mere physical infirmity. Rather, they considered a metzora as someone divinely afflicted, punished for the sin of lashon ha-ra, literally evil speech, or gossip. In the Talmud, the Rabbis say that the word metzora is actually a Hebrew acronym for the phrase: motzi shem ra, meaning one who spreads a bad name, or slanderer. In a midrash on our parashah, the Rabbis illustrate the connection between tzara’at and gossip by referring to the well-known story of Miriam in Numbers 12 where she is stricken with this disease. Miriam speaks disparagingly about Moses’s wife and she is punished with an outbreak of white sores. The Rabbis stress the connection between Miriam’s affliction and the actions that provoked it. As The Torah: A Women’s Commentary says, “[The Rabbis] insisted that tzara’at is a divine punishment for defaming others, a grave transgression in a culture that highly valued oral communication.” Whether we can accept this theology is a problem in itself that I cannot discuss today.

The power of words is something we often take for granted. In our modern context we can understand how negative words about others posted on the Internet can have enduring power to cause harm long after the situation that inspired them has been forgotten. The Biblical world understood a similar power in speech. God creates the world by speaking. Isaac’s blessing once mistakenly bestowed on Jacob cannot be renounced for Esau’s sake. Balaam’s intended curse uttered as an unwilling blessing cannot be relinquished. Once it was said, it was done. Just as it could not have been unsaid, it could not have been undone. With this very real understanding of the impact of speech, is it any wonder then that the Rabbis attribute a Biblical disease as one that exclusively afflicts those who misuse this powerful tool?

This interpretation might help us decipher the difficulties we had earlier. If tzara’at is a metaphorical affliction for a gossiper, then forced seclusion seems an appropriate punishment. Gossip is terribly contagious. How challenging is it to stay silent once someone has begun to dish out some juicy details? It’s exciting and engaging and very difficult to abstain from.

Continuing in the metaphor, tzara’at isn’t just a disease that affects human beings, but it can seemingly make the walls of a house crumble if it is allowed to progress unchecked. This suggests that lashon ha-ra affects the very structure of our civilization. The symbols of positive human development—shelter and clothing—are corrupted by the negative influence of gossip. Finally, priests did not visit the metzora to diagnose a physical disease, but to determine if the afflicted individual was ready to reintegrate into the community.

Perhaps we can find evidence of the efficacy of this form of rehabilitation in the example of the metzora’im in our Haftarah portion. In 2Kings 7:3-20, four metzora’im are isolated outside of the city because of their disease. Meanwhile, the city is being seiged by the Arameans and its inhabitants are being forced into starvation. The metzora’im decide that they might as well try to beg for food from the Aramean camp as they faced imminent death staying where they were anyway. Upon arriving at the enemy’s camp, they see that it is deserted and they begin looting it for their own benefit.

Then, they turn to one another and say, “We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! If we wait until the light of morning, we shall incur guilt. Come, let us go and inform the king’s palace” (2 Kings 7:9). The information they brought to the city saved its inhabitants. Maybe it was their isolation that taught them how to use their speech properly. Perhaps that is why this section of our parashah is referred to as Torat Ha-Metzora, the teaching of the metzora, because it is the process of isolation and reflection that teaches the metzora to abandon his/her sinful impulses.

We no longer have tzara’at, but we still have the plague of lashon ha-ra. I wonder if we would speak more carefully if we knew our words could manifest themselves as repulsive sores on our bodies or rotting elements of our homes or wardrobe. Perhaps we, like Miriam, still wouldn’t be able to hold our tongues. Regardless, reading this parashah reminds us of the very real effects of our seemingly intangible words.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.