Table for Five: Tazria

A Humbling Experience
April 11, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

As for the person with a leprous affection: The clothes shall be rent, the head shall be left bare, and the upper lip shall be covered over; and that person shall call out, “Impure! Impure!”

– Lev. 13:45

Dini Coopersmith
Director, Orot HaTorah Israel

Oy. What a humbling experience to be a metzora! Our Sages tell us in the Talmud: “the lowest of the low is a metzora”. The word “leper” is synonymous with “ostracized.” 

Can you imagine, in our shaming, cancel-culture generation, a person with a “leprous infection” going to the priest, who declares him (or her??) impure, leaving the community, tearing one’s clothes, walking around bare-headed and calling out: “Don’t come near me- I’m impure?” Amazingly, this self-shaming, self-cancelling and self-ostracizing process would take place in the days of the Temple. 

Metzora comes from the words “motzi ra” – brings out bad. In this case, the Jew with leprosy has become an agent for evil, and it is affecting his/her whole internal being. In those days, we were guided and taught by priests, who would interpret for us the divine messages in the world. It was clear that illnesses were messages from a loving God who wanted us to realize we were on the wrong path, recalibrate, and grow and develop as human beings. 

Now, although we no longer have kohanim who can tell us why we are suffering, we still have a Father who is sending us messages, nationally and individually. If calamities befall our nation, if we are ostracized or cancelled individually or collectively on social media, may we hear the message, evaluate where we went wrong and come up with a plan for tikkun (repair).

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe
The Alliance of Orthodox Congregations, Springfield, MA

In Tractate Shabbat (67A) The Talmud remarks that it is permissible, in the case of a tree that sheds its fruit before becoming ripe, to paint it with red paint. It asks “What healing is he performing with this?” The answer: “So that people will see the tree and pray for mercy for it.” It then quotes the above verse “(He) will cry: Impure, impure” (Leviticus 13:45). “He must announce his pain to the masses, and they will pray for mercy on his behalf.”

Maimonides, at the end of describing these laws, writes (MT Tza’raat 16:10) “These changes … which the Torah described with the general term of tzara’at is not a natural occurrence. Instead, it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hora, ‘undesirable speech.’” This is speech which denigrates a person to others. Even if the recounted shortcoming is true, it is nevertheless wrong to speak about it. 

Inasmuch as this is a personal failing on the part of an afflicted person who must then change him/herself, how is praying for him going to help? An answer is that all of us are part of a single soul-entity. Prayer is the act of drawing down a new divine life force to our collective self. When we focus that power on a particular person in need, it can cause what the Mystics call “an awakening from above” and jump-start introspection and self-transformation by drawing down G-dly inspiration upon the afflicted individual.

Kylie Ora Lobell
Jewish Journal Community Editor

Tazria deals with all the ways in which a person can become “impure,” with this particular passage focusing on leprosy caused by lashon hara – evil speech/gossip. When we speak ill of others, it not only corrodes our soul; in Biblical times, it also showed up on us physically. There’s a story we often hear: A rabbi instructed a man who often gossiped to open up a pillow and let the feathers float away with the wind. Once the man did this, the rabbi then told him to go and fetch all the feathers. The man declared that he couldn’t possibly do that. The rabbi then said, “Once a rumor, a gossipy story, a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it ends up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back.” These days, it is so easy to gossip. We can do it during a casual conversation with a friend or anonymously through social media. But as Hashem warns, it hurts us and it ruins the reputations of others. Gossip can lead to a person being harmed, so we take it very seriously. In the parsha, the person who is afflicted with this spiritual disease must separate physically from the community, because that is what they did spiritually when they spoke ill of others. Even though this type of leprous affliction is not inflicted upon us now, we must always guard our tongue, speak well of others, and avoid lashon hara – which is not a victimless crime.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman
Head of Israel’s Masorti/Conservative bet din

When a person is stricken with “tzara‘at,” a skin affliction that seems to appear from nowhere and abates after the required cleansing is performed, he (or she) must announce his arrival by calling out a warning: “Tamei! Tamei!” (“Impure! Impure!”). Is this an instance of forced self-abasement, as if one must announce, “Shame on me”? It’s possible, as our sages suggest it is a punishment for speaking ill of others. 

Or are we looking at a public health regulation? If the disease were communicable, that would make sense. But there are no hints that the condition is contagious. The Aramean general Naaman went about his life as usual even when afflicted with this repulsive disease (2 Kings). As the late Jacob Milgrom pointed out, the Torah’s treatment of tzara‘at focuses on the appearance, not the disease itself. And that provides a hint at what our verse is about. 

Leviticus seems to make a particular assumption: that Israelites would feel compassion toward the unfortunate person suffering from tzara‘at. His tattered clothes, disheveled hair, and, one must assume, pitiable demeanor would arouse sympathy. Good, decent Israelites would approach with offers of assistance, perhaps assuming he is a mourner, whose appearance is similar. They are warned away not because of a health risk but because of ritual impurity, which indeed can be imparted by touch. Would that we might all assume such kindness would be forthcoming from strangers.

Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas
Founder of The Ritual House (www.theritual.house)

How do we hold the parts of our wisdom tradition that don’t feel right? For many rabbis, the conclusion is to avoid the moments that go against the progressive values of today. There is an avoidance to share that in our beloved Torah, there are sections that cast people out for merely having a disease, as this verse suggests. Yet, it is up to us not to avoid them but rather to find our way into these ancient ways of being despite them seeming misaligned with our moral compass. We are here to ask what they are teaching us, especially when they are challenging. I see the individual with the leprous affliction and feel their pain and their sense of otherness. And how unimaginably painful it must be for one with an uncomfortable and visibly embarrassing disease to be cast out by the community. Each of us must know this feeling of outsider-ness deep within us. As human beings and social animals, we are conditioned to never be the ones who are cast out because, as much as we have collectively progressed, we are still hard-wired to form group norms and expectations and to adhere to these. This verse is an invitation to remember the unbearable feeling of exclusion and transform it by being part of building a community without insiders and outsiders and to know that we have the power to do so in our everyday life.

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