Metaphorical meaning of leprosy

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This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33.

Often rabbis hate to teach about these parshiot because they seem so foreign to our modern sensibilities. But I signed up to write about them because I find them fascinating. They deal with the idea of tum’ah, a hard-to-translate or -define term, but which deals with when one has had contact with forces beyond our control, such as birth, death and serious illness. The Torah requires a period of separation after these kinds of contact and rituals of re-integration. This was possibly very healing for the ancient Israelites.

Metsora deals with various kinds of skin eruptions and even clothing and house “eruptions.” These may have been, in the case of humans, various kinds of diseases. In the case of clothes and houses, they may have been molds or fungi. The actions prescribed by the Torah include bathing, washing clothes, quarantine, removal of “infected” stones and burning “infected” clothing. On the physical plane, these are sound sanitation efforts that we still practice today in certain situations.

But more interesting are the rabbis’ explanations. They believe that humans erupt in skin diseases from “lashon ha’rah,” literally “evil speech,” often used to mean malicious gossip (Leviticus Rabbah, 16:1), and point out that such speech can be contagious.

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Other sins can lead to similar results. Here is one list: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely and one who incites brothers to quarrel” (Etz Chayim Torah and Commentary, p. 652).

In the case of houses, the rabbis also cite selfishness or greed, giving as an example a person who refuses to lend an ax or sieve, claiming they did not have one. By having all their possessions removed from their house for all to see, this lie is exposed.

Likewise, there is a midrash that wonders why both cedar and hyssop were used in the re-integration ritual. The rabbis answer that “…the person’s raising himself up like a cedar caused him to be smitten with skin disease but making himself small and humbling himself like the hyssop caused him to be healed” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:35).

Questions for discussion

How can we best re-integrate people today after they have had contact with birth, death and life-threatening illness into our community?

How can we learn to disagree civilly, remembering that we are all family?

Rabbi Rain Zohav is rabbi and spiritual adviser to IFFP, Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC and director of Educating for Spirituality.

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