by Kenny Gold
This week’s portion, Tazria/Metzorah is a double Parashah that begins with the laws and the effects of childbirth. Even though the miracle of life is wonderful and we are fulfilling God’s request of being fruitful and multiplying, the Torah suggests that childbirth makes the mother impure. When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period. The quote continues by saying that on the fifth day the child shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days following she must stay away from the sanctuary and must not touch anything pure, for she is impure.If she gives birth to a female, she shall stay away for 6 days and must be away from holy objects and the sanctuary for sixty-six days. Since we don’t sacrifice anymore and we do not alienate new mothers post-childbirth, it is a ritual that new mothers listen to the kedushah or any part of the kedushah as their way of purifying themselves.
Tzaraat is the Hebrew word for the biblically chosen skin disease, leprosy. Such famous Jewish figures as Moses and Miriam were said to have contracted this disease, which was normally a clear cut sign that God was annoyed about something or that they did something wrong. So the double portion discusses the Metzorah, the sick person, and the Tazria the person who has leprosy. These two portions are a guide for how to be pure and not suffer from these diseases and how to take care of the disease or problem when it occurs.
Even though in modern times we have medicine for leprosy, these medicines only cure the physical symptons of tzaraat. The Torah provides the guidelines on how to cure oneself spiritually. It also teaches people that new mothers too, after this life-changing event, must reenter the spiritual community with her newborn child. Thanks Torah!
by Sylvie Grossbard with Avra Heller
Falling right in the middle of Torat HaKohanim (the book of Vayikra), Tazria and its partner, Metzora, deal with the responsibilities of the kohanim pertaining to impurity in people due to disease and bodily emission. Tazria begins with a description of a woman’s offering after giving birth, and later delves into the biblical diseases, the most famous of which is tzara’at (Metzora continues this theme).
We are all familiar with the Torah’s frequent descriptions of tzara’at, a disease many people now know as leprosy, which is not an accurate translation, as we cannot really identify what the disease is. It is characterized by swelling, scabs, whiteness, or bright spots, which are all symptoms of diseases that have been recognized and diagnosed in the twentieth century. Additionally, the treatment is quarantine until a kohen deems the infected person pure again. Yet tzara’at cannot possibly be a “normal” infection, because its contamination may spread to clothing, linens, and even one’s house.
Many commentators, both ancient and modern, have tried to find explanations for this phenomenon. However, in the words of Abravanel (translated), “Far be it from us to consider the Torah as a medical manual.” Thus, it is not our job to try and identify the symptoms of the disease as scientific evidence. Instead, the Torah has chosen to associate tzara’at with lashon hara, for which it is a known punishment. According to Rambam, “tzara’at comes as a punishment for the evil tongue, for its owner is isolated and can no longer harm people with his loose talk.” The affliction of tzara’at is not natural; rather, it is God’s way of informing people of their transgressions, and prompting them to do teshuvah and return to God, because of its supernatural aspects.
In our own time, we find cause for disease in miniscule organisms that scientists identify under microscopes or through other tests, and we treat these diseases with advanced medicines. We no longer look at disease as a punishment from God for our sins. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the lesson we learn from the concept of tzara’at. Although we may not find patches of infected skin on our bodies, we can find evidence of our wrongdoings in people’s reactions to our behavior and its repercussions. The message of this affliction is therefore to be aware of your actions and to understand their effects. That way, we will always know what we have done, and will always know how we can change it for the better.
by Judah Kerbel
April 25, 2009/1 Iyar 5769
This Shabbat, we read a combined parasha, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, of which the main focus is a skin disease called tzara’at. While the disease has often been identified as leprosy, scholars believe that tzara’at is actually a different disease.
If a person sees a scaly affection on his skin, it is to be reported to the priests, the kohanim. In certain cases, he is merely declared impure, in other cases, he is isolated from the community, and the Torah goes on to describe the numerous scenarios which a person affected with leprous may experience. After the affected person purifies himself in the mikveh, he must offer sacrifices, for that person is called mechusar kaparah, one who lacks atonement, until he does so.
Of course, we are puzzled by the significance of this disease, why it requires such intense ritual, what is it about this particular skin disease that inspires such detailed discussion in the Torah. Linguistically, metzora, Hebrew for “leper,” is similar to motzi sheim ra, one who defames, and our Sages defined tzara’at as the punishment for maligning. This idea is furthered by the juxtaposition of Miriam’s contraction of tzara’at with her gossiping about Moshe later in the Torah. Essentially, tzara’at is the outer reflection of an inner flaw: when one sees the tzara’at, he or she is directly reminded of the imperfection that exists in his or her inclination to do what is not so good in the eyes of God. Seifer Ha-Hinnukh, a medieval work explaining the root of each mitzvah in the Torah, notes that in regard to the mitzvah of sacrificing an offering after recovering from tzara’at, the sacrifice, which provides atonement for the leper, bears the symbolism of diminishing the sinful inclination and increasing the value of the soul because tzara’at represents the human pursuit of lust through speech and through action. When one offers the sacrifice after recovery from tzara’at, that person in turn acknowledges that his disease represents an impurity within his soul and that impurity must be rectified by means of a reciprocal spiritual action. Only after that acknowledgment has been made may that person have achieved atonement.
If we look at this issue from a larger scope of the world, we can see that the way our planet may look reflects the way in which we take care of the earth, or the way in which we don’t take care of the earth for that matter. Just like tzara’at is the physical reflection of an inner impurity, global warming and pollution are two examples of “diseases” in the earth that reflect the choice of people to not be careful in preserving the purity of this planet. When polar caps melt and coastlines flood, when our air is too polluted to breathe in good health, when our water is too dirty to drink, that is all a reflection of human beings pursuing grandeur and accomplishment at the price of debasing the quality of the earth that in turns hurts the human race. While the actions taken that caused some of these problems have helped us thrive as a civilization, an excessive amount of industrialization and failure to conserve can backfire on us. Impure desires and intentions in respect to maltreatment of the earth can reflect the physical flaws we begin to see in our planet, just like one may think that maligning will reap self-benefit until that person receives tzara’at.
On a different note, we commemorated Yom Ha-Sho’ah U-g’vurah this past Tuesday. It is on this day we remember the six million Jewish souls that were lost to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and to the desire of human beings to annihilate a whole sect of the world that was created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. We ask why God allowed this stuff to happen – the only way I can answer that question is that God created human beings with free will, with choice, and in that package comes the choice, unfortunately, to do bad. The loss of so many innocent souls to such an abhorrent cause is in and of itself a physical reflection of the evil that might exist in a human soul; mourning the disappearance of a freakishly large number of the Jewish population is the tzara’at of the irresponsible choices that human beings made with their free will. But this day is in fact called Yom Ha-Sho’ah U-g’vurah – g’vurah is heroism. While we may not have had enough heroes during the Holocaust, we do not forget that there were many people who resisted Hitler’s scheme, who actively fought the tzara’at prevalent throughout Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The Righteous Gentiles and all those who participated in the resistance knew and let the world know that they would not tolerate action inspired on account of impure and inhumane desires to fill the world with an unhealthy dogma of hatred and brutality.
So at this point, we are about to count the omer. From the 2nd night of Pesach all the way through Shavuot, we count the days in ascending order in accordance to the law in the Torah. One symbol inherent in counting the omer is the anticipation of receiving the Torah, a major theme of Shavuot. As we count the omer, we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah in the purest state of being possible, in terms of our traits. In light of what we have discussed about tzara’at, I hope that as we prepare ourselves to accept the Torah on Shavuot, that we think about our thoughts and actions and how they reflect on us in the long run, and more importantly, that we think about the world in which we live and how we will fix it to reflect peace, wholeness, and prosperity.
by Alex Krule
This week, we read the double portion Tazria-Metzora. These parshiot are linked in a very clear way; they both thoroughly and completely deal with matters of spiritual impurity and how the Kohanim are to deal to the various impurities brought upon the people of Israel. In fact, Metzora begins as a continuation of the case the “metzora,” or one who has an ancient disease called “tzara’at.” Many translate this disease as leprosy based on its symptoms, but, in actuality, the name of this disease cannot be translated, for it has a much more significant meaning behind it.
The disease called tzara’at is a very prominent condition within the bible. Two of the most well-know times when this condition appears is at the burning bush when God proves His power to Moshe and when Miryam and Aharon speak badly of their brother, but this portion deals mainly with diagnosis and treatment of and for tzara’at. At a pshat, or simple, level, it would appear as though the kohanim of the Tabernacle doubled as doctors as well. After all, there is plenty of detail about what parts of the body are afflicted by this condition (examples include hair becoming white in certain areas, snow-like scales falling off of the body, and other white inflammations of the skin). However, as Professor Arnold M. Eisen observes in this week’s JTS Weekly Torah Commentary, the kohanim are not doctors; “Medicine is not the art he [the kohen] practices.” Instead, says Professor Eisen, we learn that one of the jobs of the kohen includes diagnosing Israelites of spiritual purity or impurity. The reason why tzara’at cannot be merely translated at leprosy is because tzara’at is a spiritual disease that manifests itself through symptoms such as discoloration of skin and hair. The disease is not caught through germs or a virus, rather, according to Masechet Arichin 15b, it is a result of being spiritually impure for not being emphatic of others or speaking lashon harah, or evil tongue/gossip, about others, as seen in the situation of Miryam and Aharaon.
The details of the diagnosis of tzara’at is mainly found in parashat Tazria while the treatment is primarily found in parashat Metzora. I encourage you to look at how the Torah describes how certain individuals must do certain sacrifices and other actions in order to aleve the condition of tzara’at. It is interesting to see how certain individuals’ actions, such as a poor man’s, differs from that of a regular man, regardless of original sin or offense. Can you think of something that happens in the world around you that is deserving of this tzara’at? Do you think that there is a way that you can prevent these things from happening?
by Corey Helfand
Parashat Shmini is no exception to the book of VaYikra when it comes to talking about the details of the ritual sacrifices. However, the events in Shmini change the mood of the chain of events that had happened up until this point. Shmini opens with the introduction to the priestly service. But the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, drastically change the joyful mood of the ritual sacrifice to the subject of death and morning.
The Torah says that the reason for Nadab and Abihu’s death is because they brought “Esh Zarah” into the Holy of Holies. But it is difficult to say what that forbidden sacrifice was. Rambam comments that Aaron’s sons were killed because they brought a sacrifice even though they had not been commanded to do so. Sifra as well as other commentators offer that in addition to not having been told to bring the sacrifice, Aaron’s sons brought this “forbidden sacrifice” into the Holy of Holies, a place that only the Kohen Gadol could go on Yom Kippur. It is unclear as to why Nadab and Abihu acted in the manner that they did and it is also hard to understand why the death penalty was the punishment for what seems to be such a small crime.
But despite this tragic event, Aaron and Moshe are commanded by God not to show signs of mourning and to move on with leading and teaching the people of the rituals and laws. The ability of Moshe and Aaron to simply move on from the horrible and sudden death of Nadab and Abihu shows their great leadership and it brings about joy once again, in the presence of the Mishkan.
The conclusion of Parashat Shmini is a continuation of the laws of Kashrut. Back in Parashat Mishpatim, we are taught not to mix a “kid in its mothers milk.” Parashat Shmini discusses the types of animals that are allowed and those that are forbidden to eat. One of the most important laws involves eating an animal that has split hooves and chews its cud. In addition to this law, Parashat Shmini discusses how to distinguish between contaminated and pure animals, so that we as Jews know which animals we are permitted to eat. Even though Shmini is a continuation of the laws given to the Jewish people, it is a Parsha that teaches us about sorrow and joy, and our ability to deal with mourning and listening. Nadab and Abihu did not purposely try to anger God, nor did they intend for their actions to be punishable by death. But the actions of Moshe and Aaron following their deaths, shows the kind of leaders that they were and their ability to keep the attention and order of the people of Israel, and show the people the importance of following God’s laws and commandments.
by Brad Greenspan
This parsha starts out with Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering a sacrifice to God that isn’t commanded. As a result, God punishes them by killing them with fire. There is a suspicion that Aaron’s sons were drunk at the time they offered the sacrifices. Moses orders the entire congregation of Israel to mourn the loss of the two sons. Moses also tells Aaron and his sons that they are not to cut their clothes or hair, nor are they to drink any alcohol. Restrictions are also put on the Kohanim, such that they are not allowed to be in contact with the dead. The next part of the parsha deals with kashrut. God starts out by telling us that the only land animals we can eat have to have split hooves and chew their cud. There are explicit instructions prohibiting the eating of animals that only do one of the two things necessary for an animal to be kosher. The Torah even goes so far as to say that we are not allowed to even touch the dead bodies of non-kosher animals. Next, fish are covered. They have to have fins and scales to be kosher. Anything else in the water is not kosher. The Torah gives a specific list of birds that are treif. These include hawks, vultures, falcons, ravens, ostriches, owls, storks, and pelicans. The Torah then says that almost all bugs are treif. The only ones that aren’t are ones that have jointed legs above their feet, all locusts, and all grasshoppers.
The final part of the parsha deals with purity. First, people who touch the carcasses of treif animals must wash their clothes, and are considered impure until the end of the day. If someone touches the person who came in contact with the treif animals, they, too become impure for the day.
Today, this parsha has relevance. It shows, first of all, that getting drunk has its consequences. It isn’t necessarily death, but it can get people into trouble, as it keeps them from thinking straight. Kashrut also has meaning today. However, with refrigeration, the ability to preserve stuff, and the advances of medicine and the cure of many animal diseases, what is the reason to still keep kashrut today? Well, for one, killing stuff in the kosher manner is the most humane way of killing animals. There is no suffering. Another reason to keep kashrut is that the habits of the animals that are kosher are cleaner than those of non kosher animals. Also, kosher animals have been raised humanely and haven’t been harmed physically. Purity today is important. We live in a society where almost everything is impure. By being pure, we keep ourselves clean, out of trouble, and put ourselves in a position to be able to do whatever we want.
by Becky Schisler
April 18, 2009/24 Nisan 5769
In this week’s parsha, Parashat Shemini, a very strange event occurs. The parasha begins with Aaron and his sons beginning to fulfill their roles as Kohanim. Moses instructs them in how to go about making a “sin offering” and a “burnt offering” to the Lord on the altar. Aaron, with the help of his sons, is careful to prepare these offerings in the way that is commanded. When he is completed, the “glory of the Lord” appears to all the people of Israel – a fire issues forth from God, consuming the offerings on the altar. Upon seeing this, everyone sings praises and falls on their faces with joy.
Two, however, are perhaps too ecstatic about this divine presence that has come to dwell in the Sanctuary … and this is where the very unexpected thing happens. Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, put incense into their pans and offer a “strange fire before G-d, which He commanded them not.” Immediately a fire issues forth from the altar, and, just like the burnt offerings before them, they are consumed. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, are dead.
This raises a number of questions. The two were just doing as the Lord had asked – certainly they had good intentions. Why did they have to die? Even stranger, after the tragic event, Aaron is totally silent; he hardly reacts. Why did this happen?
There are several explanations. According to the text, the two died because they offered frankincense in the temple – and this had not been specifically asked for by God. But is that really deserving of death?
According to Talmudic sources quoted by Rashi, their offence was aggravated by having done it without first consulting Moses, their teacher, and because they did it after having drunken too much wine. Perhaps their death was a lesson for the Israelites to never enter the Sanctuary or perform sacrifices while in such a state of mind.
According to Rashi following Ex. 29:43, however, the text means that God was actually honored by the strange offering of Nadav and Abihu – and that is why he killed them. Rashi implies that when God uses strict justice with the incredibly righteous, he is feared and honored. Moses later tries to comfort Aaron in saying that “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “Perhaps the Lord took the lives of Nadav and Abihu not because he was punishing him, but because they were great – greater than their fathers – and how such greatness merits death is entirely beyond our comprehension. This is an explanation that is fitting of Aaron’s silence.
There are other examples in the Torah where God has actually commanded silence as response to startling and even tragic events – this one is no different. While any of these explanations may be correct, there is no denying that the unexpected deaths of these two Kohanim are unexpected and tragic. The response of their father is not emotionless, rather fitting – sometimes, in the face of God’s great, incomprehensible ways, silence is the only appropriate response.