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Parashat Tazria-Metzora

April 23, 2015

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

These are the Torah portions we love to hate. This week’s text discusses, in great detail, numerous health conditions including skin disease and bodily emissions. Those in charge of preparing students to become bar/bat mitzvah often wish they could avoid it — well, like the plague.

Our modern discomfort with Tazria-Metzora is a natural reaction, surely. The kohanite priests however, were enjoined to move towards the afflicted rather than avoid them, as they were charged with the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery relating to their various skin conditions.

Jethro Gibbs, the main character of the TV show NCIS, has a series of rules that govern his approach to his work and his team. In that spirit, here are a few “rules” that may reflect the priests’ approach as described in this week’s text.

Rule # 760* / tzara’ath (leprosy): “Pay attention to detail.”

In Leviticus 13:3 we read that if someone has a lesion on his skin, he is to be brought for examination to Aaron or one of his sons: “The kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath. When the kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean”. If, however, the hair in the lesion has not turned white and the lesion is not deeper than the skin around it, then it is of lesser concern –- the individual is to be quarantined for seven days, and then re-examined with the same process just described.

A pronouncement of “unclean” meant that those individuals had to live outside the Israelite camp for the duration of their condition. Rashi elaborates, citing not one but three camps from which the unclean person must become separated: the first is the “camp of the Shechinah” where the portable sanctuary resides, the second is the camp where the Levite priests reside, and the third is where the ordinary Israelites dwelt.  Surely the priests would not want to have to isolate someone in this way unless diagnosis was certain. Paying attention to detail was critical.

Rule # 404 /  kodesh (holiness): “Declare transition to health through sacred ritual.”

Once an individual has been declared healthy by the priest, purification rites are described, again in great detail. Sacrifices are brought to the mekom hakodesh (holy place) (Lev. 14:13). “Then the kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. The kohen shall order, and one shall slaughter the one bird into an earthenware vessel, over spring water. [As for] the live bird, he shall take it, and then the cedar stick, the strip of crimson [wool], and the hyssop, and, along with the live bird, he shall dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the spring water. He shall then sprinkle seven times upon the person being cleansed from tzara’ath, and he shall cleanse him. He shall then send away the live bird into the [open] field” Lev 14:4-7.

Rabbinic commentators added a moral element. Rashi cites Arachin 16a which likens the bird offering to the sin of “derogatory speech” as illustrated by the chattering of said bird; on 16b the “tall cedar” symbolizes arrogance as the cause of skin lesions. The offerings reflected a purification ritual intended to cleanse the person from both his physical and his moral impurities. Having been declared clean and having made the proscribed offerings, they were able to return to full participation in the community.

Rule # 605 [zot ha-]Torah (this is the teaching):  “There shall be universal access to purification.”

When a leper has been declared clean by the priest and it’s time to bring the proscribed offerings, a modification of the offering is allowed “if he is poor and his means are insufficient” (Lev. 14:21). One who cannot afford the required two male lambs and a ewe may bring a single male lamb, and one-tenth rather than three-tenths of a measure of flour. In the text, the detailed description of the offerings for the one of limited means, is repeated in exactly the same words as the offerings by those of sufficient means. No one is excluded from the sacred purification ritual.

Imagine. This text translated for modern times would necessitate guaranteed access to the highest level of healthcare with thorough patient care, need-based medical fees, and universal paid sick leave.

*Rule numbers are based on the gematria (numerical value) of that rule’s title.


 Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.