This week, we will read the double torah portion of Tazria-Metzora in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). At the same time, we will also welcome the new month of Iyyar, or “blossom”. Thirdly, we find ourselves in the middle of the Omer, which is the 49 day period between our liberation from slavery, celebrated through the holiday of Passover, and our ultimate climactic experience of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, our celebration of Shavuot. The Omer commemorates the ancient daily practice of bringing an Omer (a biblical sheaf of barley) to the Temple as a offering to G-d. During the Omer, it is customary to take on deep introspection and questioning. Thus, Iyyar is seen as a time of release and reception. We are letting go of what holds us back as well as preparing for receiving the new life of springtime...
Moreover, Iyar links the months of Nisan and Sivan, as we are brought out of our exile in Egypt and make our way to the reception of the Torah where we take another step in becoming the nation of Am Yisrael.
Yet, the book of Leviticus is one of the most dense and difficult books of the Torah for contemporary people to connect with. Often, the ancient and archaic ritual laws cause us to shy away from examining the depths of Torah. The major themes of Tazria-Metzorah are impurity, ritualized cleansing and reentry into society. Admittedly, I struggle too, in finding some clear takeaways from these Parshiyot (Torah portions). Yet, when I took a step back, I was able to ask myself a fundamental question which I find key in understanding and finding the wisdom in our tradition: What values are being taught through these Parshiyot? What can we glean from these turse rules and laws?
It is no coincidence that two of the most difficult Parshiyot come in the middleground of our time of freedom and jubilation. With our recent celebration of Passover, we were recently able to free ourselves from the deep bondage and pain of slavery. I think it is crucial, before we receive the Torah, we prepare ourselves -- physically, emotionally and ritually -- for this reception.
A strong focus of the two parshiyot are the ways in which one can contract disease and the protocol necessary to become seen as pure. The name of our first parsha is Tazria which translates as “she conceives”, a term used to describe the multitude of situations of impurity after a woman has a child. Metzora means “he who spreads slander”. The punishment for the metzorah would be tzara’at. Rabbi Yizchak in Zohar Vayikra sees the plague of tzara'at as a form of closing a “means of harsh judgment that rests over the world”. Within this definition, we are closing ourselves off from our fellow man. Classically our Sages see tzara’at as not a disease of the body but rather a physical manifestation as a form of punishment for lashon ha'ra (“evil speech”).
One of the features of these Torah portions are the individual responsibility and tasks when they become a metzorah. When one becomes afflicted with metzora they must behave as if they are in mourning and do the following: First, they needed to tear their clothing just as one would do during mourning. Furthermore, they were forbidden from cutting their hair and lastly they were required to cover their head down to their lips. Much like the treatment for other sins, those afflicted with tzara’at needed to isolate themselves from the community. They also had to publically state their uncleanliness and call out “Unclean, Unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). As long as they still were affected with a mark they had to stay outside of the camp. After the skin conditions healed, those formerly afflicted would offer sacrifices before being declared ritually pure by the Kohanim.
None of our biblical heroes or heroines were exempt from contracting this disease. In Devarim Rabbah 6:8, Rabbi Chanina uses the example of our Biblical heroine, Miriam as a case study: “Even the righteous Miriam, who spoke lashon ha’ra of her brother Moshe: plagues clung to her”.
Although tzara’at no longer exists today, we must be faced with the challenge of finding meaning in these obscure laws. What values are the rituals in the Parshah trying to convey?
One of the Powers I see in Torah is its ability to challenge and force us to find meaning. In the words of the notable Torah scholar, Jacob Milgrom “ritual is the poetry of religion that leads us to a moment of transcendence”. I see these rituals as a way which challenge us to deal with the self, pushing us to finetune the ways in which we live and contribute to society.
Are there impurities within our own personal lives that we wish cleanse ourselves of? How can we become more open to questioning our ideas and motives in this critical time of self reflection, and become better versions of ourselves? Before we begin to receive, I think it is important to humble ourselves and ask these questions which we often shy away from. I challenge us to become vulnerable with the self as we listen to the calm, deep and powerful voice -- the divine within ourselves-- which we all possess.
Originally from Seattle, Washington, Adam Gillman is a currently a Peace and Conflict Resolution Fellow and student at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He has worked as an educator, farmer, youth advisor and organizer and will begin Rabbinical School in the Fall.
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