Read This Week's Torah Commentary: Parashat Metzora 5774

Main Commentary

Paying Attention to Our Bodies and Ourselves

by William Friedman, codirector and co–rosh yeshiva of Nishma: A Summer of Torah Study in the JTS Beit Midrash, JTS

What are the rituals that help us transition from one experience to another? Do we merely float through life, stoically absorbing its shocks, riding its waves, and pushing its regular cycles to the periphery of our awareness? Or do we take the time to stop, take stock, process, and move forward purposefully and consciously? These are the fundamental questions Parashat Metzora asks us to consider.

Leviticus 14–15 deals with three subjects: (1) the purification ritual of someone diagnosed with tzara'at (a skin disease classically but probably inaccurately translated as "leprosy"); (2) the diagnosis and subsequent disposition of a house afflicted with mold; and (3) the response to genital fluids, both normal and abnormal. These are the sorts of passages that rightly give the Hebrew Bible its reputation as a carnal text, whose concern with the embodied details of daily life is equal to or greater than its interest in theological abstraction. They are, in fact, the passages that have the most to teach us about how to approach life.

Take the eponymous metzora, one who was diagnosed, according to last week's parashah, with a skin disease and shut out of the community for seven days, likely for fear of contamination. She or he is now on the mend. In contrast to a culture in which a person who recovers from a medical trauma is suddenly thrust back into her or his normal life, the Torah prescribes an involved process of reintegration, rich in symbolism and potent in psychological impact. Take, for example, the requirement to take two birds, slaughter one of them, dip the live bird in the dead bird's blood, and send the now blood-soaked bird away over an open field. Hizkuni explains that the metzora was like a chained bird, isolated for seven days, who has now been freed to return to his community. The blood clearly symbolizes the mortality of the metzora and the close encounter with death. The externalization of internal feelings through symbolism is crucial to the efficacy of the ritual.

Note, however, that this ritual is not the end of the process, but its beginning. The now-healed metzora, bathed and shaved like a newborn, returns to the camp but remains outside her or his tent for an additional seven days. It is not possible to immediately return to one's normal life after a life-threatening illness. The delay in returning to one's own tent forces two responses. First, the community is alerted to this person's distress and is forced to care for her or him. Second, the individual is prevented from pretending that everything is normal, that the experience she or he just had can be ignored. Instead, the waiting period prompts contemplation, after which the person shaves again, shedding the past once more and transitioning into a new, optimistic future as her or his hair regrows.

The genius of our parashah is that it does not limit its concern to the abnormal. Even the ordinary and expected is subject to ritualized regulation, forcing us to confront the functions of our bodies and to contemplate their consequences on our relationships with others. All manner of symbolic interpretations have been given for why contact with semen and menstrual blood impurify, chief among them being that both represent potential loss of life. I prefer the approach attributed to the Pharisees, in a different context, in Mishnah Yadayim 4:6: lefi hibatan tumatan (according to their preciousness is their impurity)—that is, there is a linear relationship between preciousness and impurity: the greater the former, the greater the latter. That is because one is more careful around those things that render one impure because being rendered impure limits one's contact with holy objects and spaces and with other human beings. We therefore treat impurifying items with greater care and thought.

In light of this insight, we can see that one of the goals of impurifying semen and menstrual blood is to raise one's awareness of them and structure one's encounter with the fundamental bodily experiences that produce them. The Torah takes pains to separate sexuality from sanctity, requiring, for instance, that priests cover their genitals such that they would never be accidentally exposed in the Temple. For sex to result in a one-day separation from the holy meant that holy people would take pains to regulate their sexual experiences. The Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 21b) even explains that some rabbis were careful not to publicize a leniency regarding the amount of water that could purify a man who had ejaculated, lest this potent tool of sexual regulation be lost.

Menstruation, too, is a healthy experience that is not to be simply endured without awareness. The flow of blood, a life-giving force, demands attention and respect. The possibility of impurification through contact with that blood and surfaces upon which it might have come into contact raises our consciousness of its presence. And here, too, the regularity of menstruation provides an opportunity for sexual regulation. While in our parashah, the Torah merely describes the impurifying consequences of having sex during menstruation, elsewhere it explicitly forbids such sex and prescribes karet (excision, either by God or the community) for transgressing that ban. Rabbi Meir saw in the Torah's insistence on a monthly seven-day period of sexual abstinence an opportunity for regular sexual rejuvenation to combat the boredom that results from overexposure to sexual stimuli (Bavli Niddah 31b).

Unfortunately, the destruction of the Temple has left us bereft of the direct power of many of these rituals. True, the laws of menstruation still structure our sexual lives, and while norms relating to ejaculation were officially rendered inoperative in the rabbinic period, some Jewish groups today still observe them and exploit their psychological benefits. When it comes to illness, though, we can no longer directly apply the forms of the Torah's rituals, but must instead try to capture their wisdom and intent and figure out how to utilize them today. What rituals should we create around surviving illness? How can we push communities to continue to care for those whose physical recovery may be complete but whose psychological recovery is still ongoing? More broadly, how can we raise our consciousnesses around our bodies and their functions to promote healthier and more aware living? As we grapple with these questions—which, as humans, we inevitably must—the insights of the Torah can serve as our guide.

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


A Taste of Torah

Boundaries: Not Only Healthy, But Divine

by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, director of Israel Programs, The Rabbinical School, JTS  

Boundaries are the focal point of Parashat Metzora, and indeed they are the obsession of the book of Leviticus. The precise placement of the Israelite encampment along with all the appurtenances of the sacrificial cult, laws pertaining to people and places struck by leprosy, and individuals who have suffered discharge or women who have given birth all underscore the toraitic embrace of boundaries. Indeed, Leviticus 15:31 declares, "You will put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them." Borders, and specifically those related to the Tabernacle, represent liminal points between purity and impurity, life and death, and Israel and other nations. How are we to understand this very complex notion today?

Joseph B'khor Shor delineates the reason for the Torah's strict legislation on boundaries. Commenting on the verse above, he writes,

I will spurn them if they become unclean like the rest of the nations. I dwell among them as I dwell among angels and so it is fitting for them to be clean, pure, holy and a chosen nation. But if they should come before Me in an impure state or eat in My Temple upon My Table in such an unholy state, they will die by karet, "cutting off." For one who enters the holy precinct impure or who eats in an impure state is cut off [from his people]. But if they will guard themselves in a pure state, then it will be good for them.

Israelite chosenness and proximity to God are described as the key reasons for puritanical tendencies. Just as God dwells with angels above, so too does God dwell with his partners below—Israel. Moreover, if the laws of purity are disregarded, the Israelites will fall prey to a spiritual death, that of being cut off from the Israelite body politic.

As Baruch Levine explains,

Although an impure person may not be guilty of any offense against God, as is true in these laws dealing with illnesses and natural physiological processes, such impurities nevertheless threaten the status of the entire community if left unattended. If the sanctuary were defiled, God's wrath would be aroused against the entire community. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 98)

The concern of both Torah and the people is to safeguard God's Presence among the people. Accordingly, biblical Israelites were keenly attuned to their physical selves and surroundings. Not only are we to continue in a similar vein, but we must also pay careful attention to our ethical and moral selves. The ethical, balanced with the physical, has the potential to underscore God's Presence and the divine qualities of the Jewish people.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.


Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer

Breath of Life—Night or Morning

by Rabbi Samuel Barth, senior lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS

The journey through the Passover seder is beloved by many households and communities that gather together. While the meal itself is a feast, the Aggadah, the telling of the story that comes before it, is a rich and multifaceted experience that brings together text and song, classic primary sources, modern interpretations, and personal experience.

After the meal, there are four principal elements of the seder. Three of these are almost universally included and expounded upon: some form of birkat hamazon (grace after meals), the liturgy surrounding Elijah (see last week's commentary), and the final songs and conclusion. A fourth element is widely neglected: the final psalms of Hallel and the ancient poem Nishmat are often presented in smaller print, and are bereft of commentary or explication in the majority of modern Haggadot; in some, they are entirely omitted. I have some sympathy for the view that these texts will be chanted in synagogue the next morning, and (provided we get there sufficiently early) they might reasonably be omitted from what is already a late night.

But there is more to it than that—and I offer here some ideas and reflections that inspire me to reconnect with the "Soul of All Life" (Nishmat Kol Chai) at seder this year. A teaching attributed to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik identifies a critical distinction between two mitzvot. In Exodus 13:8, we are commanded, "Vehigadta levin'kha," and in Exodus 10:2, "tesaper be'oznei vin'kha"; both cases might be translated as "Tell / Relate to your children." Rabbi Soloveitchik follows a long line of commentators who seek to make a distinction between the two Hebrew verbs. He suggests that the first case is the basis for the command to "remember" or "mention" the Exodus, and that this requires only intellectual engagement, or the encounter with ideas and information processed analytically and cognitively. However, he asserts that the second case, which uses the verb saper, requires emotional (spiritual) involvement, and that the Hallel of the seder—alone among all recitations of Hallel—is a mitzvah commanded by Torah (rather than of rabbinic origin).

I was taught in yeshiva that the Hallel is divided before and after the meal so that the meal itself becomes a component of Hallel in relation to the seder. Our conversations, reflections, and debates are a part of the way in which we praise God. The two psalms before the meal are texts of pure praise, while the remainder of Hallel after it includes questions and petitions. The fullness of the poetry in psalms and later liturgy is found then at the end of the seder, leading to the fourth cup of wine that is associated with universal and ultimate redemption for the Jewish people and all humanity. So it is fitting that the poem "May All Living Souls Give Praise" (Nishmat Kol Chai) brings the Hallel to a universal conclusion, referring to 15 kinds of praise that perhaps correspond to the 15 traditional elements of the seder. We cannot understand, experience, and give thanks for liberation with our minds, words, and ideas alone—poetry and song are not optional, they are demanded.

Hear Nishmat chanted by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Listen to a haunting solo version of Nishmat by Nathalie Rosenthal.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at


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