Parashat Tazria/M'tzora

Leviticus 12:1–15:33

April 17, 2010 / 3 Iyyar 5770

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor, JTS

The Baal Shem Tov, seeking the sort of symbolic meaning in this week's section of Leviticus that we too search out, found the laws of scaling and scalding, bodily discharge, and fungus in the warp and woof of fabric suggestive of the need for repentance and humility.

"Let not a person say in his heart that he is greater than his fellow, that he serves God with greater devekut [devotion], for he is just like the rest of the creatures created by God for the purpose of His service, and God gave his fellow intelligence just as God bestowed it on him. And [indeed] in what is he more important than a worm? For a worm also serves the Creator, may His name be blessed, with all its intelligence and strength, and Man is also a lowly worm, as is written in Psalm 22 [verse 7], 'For I am a worm and not a man . . . '" (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, M'tzora, 9).

Focus on the body—its pains and sores, its frequent need for healing and repair, all of these pointing toward mortality—brings thoughts such as the Baal Shem Tov's to mind. Pretense does not hold up well in the face of unbearable itching, oozing, or boils. When the skin that normally marks the boundary between each of us and the rest of creation breaks down, the rest of the self may break with it. Ridges and crevices that appear in surfaces of flesh that are normally smooth may disrupt our sense of at-homeness in the world. We fear that discoloration on the outside of the body will signal to everyone we meet that something inside us is not right. We are discomfited, uneasy in that skin.

The priest's relentless quest to impose order—directed in this particular case at the outbreak of lesions and sores, and assisted, as is often the case, by Leviticus's dry, repetitive prose—cries out with the pathos of its own limitations. What can the holy man do in the face of a contagious skin disease that he can describe in precise detail but cannot, for all his ritual knowledge, cure? Not much, we learn. The priest performs no magic whatever. He waves no incense at the affliction, recites no incantations over it. He cannot make the bad stuff go away. Medicine is not the art he practices.

Five acts and only those five are ascribed to the priest in the relevant sections of Tazri•a and M'tzora (chapters 13–14), aside from the usual round of sacrifices: 1. he listens carefully to the victim's report and decides if further action is required; 2. he sees (i.e., examines or investigates), judging by the signs whether infection has run its course; 3. he pronounces the afflicted person, garment, or home pure or impure (and by saying the words, makes things so); 4. he imposes or lifts quarantine on persons, garments and dwellings; and 5. he orders destruction of homes and fabrics that cannot be freed of impurity. The enormous detail supplied over and over again for his diagnosis by a normally laconic text only serves to highlight how much our ancestors knew about the symptoms and progress of the afflictions they confronted—and how little they understood the cause or cure for those afflictions.

Contemporary readers of Leviticus have more advanced science at our disposal, of course. That science, contrary to the Torah's, has no room in it for divine intervention in the natural order of sickness and health (though many of us still petition God for healing), and no place either for the kind of moral calculus that the rabbis exhibited in linking tzara'at (the skin disease that afflicts the m'tzora) to tale-bearing, based on Miriam's alleged crime and apparent punishment in Numbers 12. Modern skin diseases therefore run their course without recourse to the clergy. We consult dermatologists instead, and benefit from antibiotic salves and other healing; our doctors often know how to alleviate the pain and suffering that Leviticus takes for granted but never explicitly mentions, perhaps because there is not a lot its priests can do about them.

And yet we too cannot heal every malady that we understand, and we continue to understand far less than we would like. The text, for its part, though it knows no cure for the ailment it describes, does offer a remedy of sorts, made all the more valuable because medical treatment is lacking. The priest places the suffering Israelite in an order of meaning and community. Once one realizes that the priest is not there to play doctor, or even public health official (Jacob Milgrom concludes in his masterful commentary on Leviticus that the skin affliction described in the text is certainly not leprosy and seems not to have been contagious; indeed no contagion is mentioned in these chapters), the link between the priestly makers of meaning and us becomes clear and compelling.

The parashah's chosen vehicle for meaning-making speaks to us, and with great immediacy. We inhabit skins, after all; a few of us still wear skins in winter and almost all of us adorn ourselves with accessories made of skin (the word for skin is the same as the word for leather in the Torah, and our parashah trades on that). What is more, the parchment from which we read Leviticus in synagogue is itself made of animal skin. How can we not pay attention to a text that speaks so eloquently to and about the basics of existence?

Read the passage on purity of walls, as I did, soon after scrubbing the oven for an hour as part of Passover preparations (the self-clean cycle might not be enough to destroy every crumb of chametz, you know) and the connection between us and the parashah is still more striking. We too expend great effort in search of meaning. Chametz that is kosher the other fifty-one weeks of the year is suddenly treif, and my house must be rid of it. Obedience to the Torah's commandment of cleaning, explicated by rabbis over many centuries, connects each of us to the Jewish community throughout the world and the generations. This parashah is not about primitives at all, one soon realizes, but about human beings, full stop. Like the rest of the Torah, it is about us.

Milgrom, puzzling through what and how the code of skin diseases means, finds a "major clue, provided by the text" in the fact "that the scale-diseased person must bring a hattat [offering], implying that he has polluted the sanctuary. Thus, in this case, as in all cases of ritual impurity, we are confronted with the binary opposition between holiness and impurity, which . . . symbolizes the forces of life and death . . . The entire purification process is nothing but a ritual, a rite of passage, marking the transition from death to life."

There is ample evidence for the symbolic character of tzara'at to which Milgrom points. The Torah presumably knew of many other illnesses that beset ancient Israelites. None are given the priestly attention lavished on this one. God presumably could have awarded Aaron or Moses the gift of miraculous cure to this disease, but does not. The text ascribes tzara'at to divine causation only when it afflicts houses (14:34) but not when it strikes persons or garments—and never gives a reason for the plague. It makes no linkage whatever at this point between human suffering and moral wrongdoing. This consistent reticence seems designed to clear space for commentary such as the one offered by the Baal Shem Tov or others that we ourselves provide. The Torah suggests there is meaning to be found in diseases of the skin and wants us to seek it out for ourselves.

If we follow the Torah's lead, part of that meaning will reside in the strengthening of communal ties. Milgrom highlights this feature of Leviticus's account. "As the celebrant moves from the realm of impurity outside the camp, restored first to the community, then to his home, and finally to his sanctuary, he has passed from impurity to holiness, from death to life, is reinstated with his family, and is reconciled with his God."

Community is assisted mightily by the reminder that neither those who suffer nor those who are spared suffering (for the moment) are, by virtue of that condition, closer to God. Sickness, like tzara'at, imposes isolation; deliberate effort is required to relieve that isolation—effort which in turn makes for deeper connection among the human beings involved in it. Affliction may also promote reflection on the true worth of things, and so bring about renewed contact with God. This in turn may lead to greater attachment to others who take the question of meaning seriously and answer it in the context of the same ritual framework.

None of this can happen if we stand dumb in the face of inexplicable suffering rather than use affliction as an occasion to seek out meaning and community. The Torah is far wiser than to ignore the healing power of language, including symbolic language; it is wise enough, too, to know that not only physicians are needed for healing. One hopes that we are wise enough to know this as well.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.