Parshat Tazria/Metzora: Leviticus 12:1-15:33; Numbers 28:9-15; Isaiah 661-24.
What does it mean to be seen? This question frames much of this week’s Torah reading, Tazria-Metzora.
The context for living the laws given to us in Leviticus has certainly changed; for example, we no longer offer animal sacrifice to demonstrate our relationship with God and commitment to community. Living in such a different context, can we find modern relevant insight into the teachings of these mitzvot?
Martin Buber wrote, “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is ‘in them’ and not between them and the world” (Buber, I and Thou, 56). Building off Buber, my teacher, Bible scholar Dr. Job Jindo, asks can we encounter the text and not only experience the text? What meaningfulness is there in these ancient mitzvot? In particular, what are we to make of the laws regarding skin ailments in this week’s portion?
In Chapter 13, we read about the kohen, the priest, functioning as both spiritual leader and medical professional, as he must look and see deeply in order to know if a person is ritually permissible to participate in sacrificial service. The root, resh-alef-hey, for the word lirot, to see, appears more than 30 times. The Torah is telling us to pay attention to words with this root. The kohen must inspect a person to see if they have a mark that would render a person ritually unable to participate in offering a sacrifice — the act of coming close to God — korban, a sacrifice, has the same root as lekarev to bring near. To offer a sacrifice was to come close to God.
What does it mean to see? It can be miraculous. For example, at Mt. Sinai we saw thunder (Exodus 20:15). As the 13th-century Torah commentator explains, during such a miraculous event, things not normally seen become visible. Citing Kohelet 1:16, Sforno, commenting in the 16th century, explains seeing thunder at Sinai similarly to seeing with one’s heart — a powerful embodied experience. To bring an offering to God meant giving over something deeply personal, animals or grain that takes so much time and energy to raise or grow.
While on the surface the instructions to the kohen are completely different from rituals we do today as Jews, the mitzvah reveals a perspective that values human dignity. To truly see each person as unique is a blessing as we strive to be in a relationship with each other and our Creator.
Rabbi Davey Rosen is a spiritual care provider with Jewish Hospice & Chaplaincy Network and lives in Ann Arbor.