October 22, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Tazria-Metzora


All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Congregation Dor Hadash, San Diego

The priest served as dermatologist and healer of the people. He would diagnose a mysterious rash on the skin or prescribe the necessary rituals when individuals came in contact with the natural life transitions of sex, childbirth, illness or death, rendering a person ritually impure.

These rituals reflect an important dialectic of the “I” and the “we” of the people. Every person had to look out for himself or herself, carefully scrutinizing bodily changes and coming to the priest to assess the situation. The community would then have to recognize such occurrences were part of society. Tzara’at was a scaly affliction that could occur in the stones of a house, in clothing or skin, and was highly contagious. The metzorah was in a temporary state of ritual impurity, a statement of fitness for ritual participation, not a moral condemnation.

The text is silent on the “why” of the fungus, but its inclusion in the Torah normalizes it. Only when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after criticizing Moses did the rabbis assign the affliction the cause that negative speech is a contagion that if not contained, can infiltrate the very bedrock of the community. Whatever the cause of a person’s isolation, it could happen to anyone, and it wasn’t permanent. The communal imperative to care for others is embedded in this text. No one should be isolated more than necessary — for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community. How we take care of one impacts the other.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

The rabbis of medieval times did not quite know what to make of the esoteric Torah portions of Tazria-Metzorah, which deal with ancient skin ailments. After all, what is the eternal pertinence for future Jewish generations of such a disease? Why is it in the Torah? Our sages came up with a creative twist. Namely, that the word “metzorah” carries a linguistic affinity to the Hebrew words “motzi shem rah” (the one who destroys the reputation of another person).

In the age of social media, many people are often “socially executed” without trial. People are convicted in the courts of Facebook, Twitter and Google, without due process or evidence. In the absence of legal proceedings, lives can be destroyed.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner proposes that we understand this verse in the context of the rabbinic hermeneutical principal of “midah keneged midah” (measure for measure). Those with reckless minds and hearts who linguistically shed the blood of others by globally shaming and defaming them online based merely on rumors — in the absence of viable witnesses and evidence — ought to be excommunicated from the public arena for a period of time.

The message is clear and pervasive for all of us who spend hours every day online facing an inanimate screen. Words can wound. Words can kill.Words can shame and tarnish reputations. Words can shatter lives.

We must think hard, think long and think deeply before writing something about anybody online.

Bruce Powell
de Toledo High School

The rabbis taught that “metzorah” is really a contraction for “motzi shem rah,” or one who brings the bad name. They believed that one of the punishments for lashon harah, or evil speech, was leprosy, a disease which called for one’s isolation from the community.

The rabbis also taught that “machloket b’shaym shamayim,” or disputes in the name of heaven, resulted in the uplifting of community. For example, even though the Academies of Hillel and Shammai argued continuously, all of their disputes were in the name of heaven, the result being that the children of Hillel and Shammai would continue to marry one another.

Today, I often sense that disputes in our community, whether they be in the political realm, financial realm and so forth, deteriorate into people bringing “the bad name” upon one another. These toxic conversations create social “leprosy,” thereby isolating friends and even family members from one another. They often become so heated that people are perceived of as being politically “unclean,” and thereby are no longer allowed to “dwell within the camp.”

I believe we can, as a community, end this current “plague” of political or social “leprosy.” May we bring only the “good name” upon each other; and may we continue to dwell together, to marry one another, and to eradicate isolation from our world.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar

What does it mean to dwell alone? Is it to her benefit? That she can heal and return to the camp? Or is it for others’ benefit, so that they don’t catch her leprosy? Leave aside for a moment the idea of being “unclean.” Peel away the layers of this verse (forgive me for using this analogy in a section of the Torah traditionally dealing with skin disease), and we see that its centerpiece is a person dwelling alone (badad yeshev).

More than ever, the idea of dwelling alone touches us. Those of us who don’t live alone, know increasing numbers of people who do. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 28 percent of households have just one person living in them — up from 13 percent in 1960. Some live alone by choice, but many who live alone would prefer not to live alone.

Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav’s spiritual practice of self-seclusion, or hitbodedut, comes from the same Hebrew root as badad, meaning alone. Ironically, one of the major purposes of hitbodedut is to talk to God. It raises the question: Are you ever really alone? And if you are alone, does that mean you are lonely?

Within the Jewish community, there are more single households than ever. Some wring their hands over this, but isn’t it better to celebrate the expansion of what the ideal Jewish household looks like? Cookie-cutter household configurations no longer carry the day. And besides, Reb Nahman would probably say, “Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean you are lonely.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila,
Sephardic Educational Center

There is nothing more divisive to a society than gossip and slander. Those who misuse and abuse the power of speech create divisions among people, often leading to irreparable damage.

Ancient Jewish society attributed leprosy as a physical punishment for spreading lies or rumors. The distinguishable physical blemishes all over the leper’s body were a sign that this person spoke lashon harah, and much like lashon harah is a plague upon a society, so, too, this individual with leprosy is a plague upon society.

Like all physical impurities in the Torah, there are ritual measures taken to rid the person of the impurity. But with lepers, there is one special measure that is unique to their impurity: “He (the leper) shall dwell alone.” Both the Talmud (Arachin 13b) and Rashi ask why this extra measure — banishment from the camp to “dwell alone” — is unique to the leper: “Because just as he caused separation between husbands and wives or between good friends with his lashon harah, so, too, he should experience separation from his community.”

While modern-day society no longer attributes leprosy to lashon harah, the virulent strain of gossip and slander persists in our society. We might heed the Torah’s advice and banish those who divide us with their words to “dwell alone.” Today that would simply mean shutting down their Twitter account.