Weekly Torah Portion – The Laws Of Impurity
Parshat Tazora/Metzora: Leviticus 12:1-15:33; II Kings 7:3-20.
As we open the Torah this week, we find ourselves reading the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. As the natural continuation of last week’s animal purity laws, Tazria-Metzora continues describing the laws of impurity for humans and our surroundings and then provides the path toward a return to a state of ritual purification.
The detailed descriptions of bodily discharges, inflammations, burns and skin diseases cause many readers and listeners to cringe. In fact, I recall a congregant who once used that to his advantage. After being assigned the role of chaplain in his fraternity, a role he did not want, to ensure that he would not be asked to read biblical citations at future meetings, he read verses from these two portions. He was successful.
So, why have a portion that describes in detail secretions from the body, skin inflammations and mold that could take over one’s home? Could it have been our foundation for dermatology and mycology? Or, could the reading of this section have been our ancestors’ version of the contemporary YouTube and TLC show Dr. Pimple Popper?
The simple answer is, “yes.” These portions deal with topics that existed during our ancestors’ lives and that still exist today. And these verses teach us how we have understood them. They teach us about contamination from blood and other bodily fluids. There is a truly practical piece to reading these verses and understanding how to properly deal with what was understood as an impurity.
But our understanding can also take us beyond this straight-forward reading. As we look more closely, we see that this text also teaches us about our behavior. One ritual describes what should be done with a person who contracts metzora, leprosy.
The Israelites believed that God was a God of reward and punishment. When commandments were followed, rewards were provided. When they weren’t, there were punishments — illnesses like leprosy. And while I don’t personally believe that idea of a God of reward and punishment in its literal sense, this is how it has been interpreted for generations.
The rabbis of old believed that there were a number of causes for leprosy. Miriam, Moses’ sister, provides us with one example in the Bible. In criticizing her brother, she comments that he married a Cushite. It was considered an attack on her ethnicity because the Cushites were black. Her punishment? Ironically, a skin disease which left her skin a flaky white.
Because of this story and others, the rabbis connected the two and taught that the act of lashon harah, gossip, or speaking negatively about others resulted in an illness like leprosy as a punishment from God.
And so, maybe that’s the lesson we learn from today’s portion. Not that we’re going to catch a skin disease as a punishment, but as a reminder that we should focus on the words we use. That, as is taught in the book of Psalms, the one who desires good fortune in his life is the one who is able to “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech” [34:13].
We should commit ourselves to words of kindness and compassion. And that we use our words for good. May that be our lesson.
Rabbi Daniel A. Schwartz is a rabbi at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.