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Archive for March, 2014

Parshat Metzora – The Power of Speech

Posted by rabbiart on March 29, 2014

Sefer HaHinuch (following RamBam of course) reports 11 positive commandments in this parshah. All of them deal with the issue of ritual un-cleanliness, either determining the status of a person, or their recovery and ritual cleansing.  Following hard on the heels of Tazria we can safely say that the Torah considers this to be a  troubling subject to which serious attention must be paid.There are three kinds of purification identified in the Torah; immersion into water, sprinkling of water upon the person, and by sacrificial offering.


In Biblical times, the virtue of the status – ritually clean or unclean – and the virtue of the cleansing ritual was that they left the individual in a known state, and operated at the physical level. In our day, when there is no Temple, no sacrificial rite, and – practically speaking in the non-Orthodox world – no status of ritual cleanliness or the absence there of, we operate at a spiritual, emotional and psychological level.  Are we clean?  Are we unclean?  What do these distinctions mean?  And how are we to ascertain what our status is.  Unfortunately, the waters are much more murky. When we delve into the traditional sources we find that our generation is far from the first to ponder the interpretation of Tazria and Metzora.

Certainly afterward and perhaps before the Temple itself was destroyed, our scholars wrestled, as we do, with these issues.

What did it mean to be cleansed by water?  Here is Sefer HaHinuch on this question.

“Why should it purify every defiled person…that it is in order that a man should perceive himself after the immersion as though he had been created at that moment – just as the world was entirely water before there was any man in it: as it is written, and the spirit of G=d was hovering over the face of the waters (Breshit 1:2). Thus he will ponder in his reflection that just as he becomes renewed in his body, so let him make all his actions equally new, for the good.  Let him make his deeds worthy, carefully observing the ways of the Eternal Lord, blessed is He”.

There are many ways to see our reflection; water is but one. Most of us look in a mirror at least once, probably several times, during the course of a day.  When out and about, we might catch our reflection unexpectedly; in a shop window, on a security camera, in a video or photograph, or quite often, in our computer monitor when the screen is blank or dark.


One might think that a mirror gives us the truest reflection of ourselves; it is designed precisely for that purpose.  Of course we know that our image is reversed and therefore right is left and left is right.  When we look in the mirror we see what we look like, but we do not see ourselves as others see us precisely because everything is reversed.”Everyone knows” that the camera adds 10 pounds. Our society is sufficiently caught up with external appearances that HP identified a market for a camera that makes the subject look skinnier.

Water is constantly in motion. According to Robert Hunter  there will be a ripple in still water (even) when there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow.  So our reflection will itself be in motion, and constantly changing.  It is a better picture of who we are then what we see in a mirror or a photographic image. Because – to borrow from Dreamgirls we are constantly changing; oscillating as it were between being clean and un-clean.  This happens every time we open our mouths.

So the Rabbis were right on point when they translated the name of our parshah – Metzora – into the Hebrew phrase motzi shem ra. They taught that the afflictions described in our parshah come upon us because of what we say. And what we say is both what we do and who we are; it is how we announce ourselves to the world. It is a rare occasion when adverse consequences do not follow after bad speech.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis has published a wonderful book – Torah of Reconciliation – in which he explores each parshah. For our parshah this Shabbat he explores how hateful speech brings about destruction, whereas proper speech can bring about peace.  At the conclusion of his section on Metzora he says

“A single, well-placed word can heal another and totally alter another’s mood.  A spoken compassionate sentiment expressed to another can overcome years of tension and estrangement. Every person bears this capacity to become a peacemaker”.

In our day, we can cleanse ourselves – and each other – through speech. With peaceful speech we find yet another place to see our reflection; in the eyes and heart of our fellow human being. When we can see ourselves as others see us, and cleanse ourselves in the heart of our fellow, that is the best purification and the truest reflection of all.

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Parshat Tazria + Shabbat HaChodesh

Posted by rabbiart on March 28, 2014

No question that the parshah this Shabbat – and it’s companion piece next week (Metzora) are challenging for the modern reader. Not only that, but by the time of rabbinic interpretation, challenging for the ancient reader as well. Especially if that reader lived in chutz la’aretz – outside the land of Israel.Our parshah deals with a variety of impurities over the course of its two chapters. The first of its two chapters (Vayikra 12) is mercifully short, coming in at only 8 verses and dealing with the ritual impurity of a woman after child-birth. Many interpretations have been written addressing the fact that the the period of impurity is twice as long when a daughter is born than that for a son; 66 rather than 33 days. Less attention has been paid to the oddity that neither is a number of complete weeks, nor are they the length of one or two months in the Jewish calendar.

The third verse mentions that baby boys are to be circumcised on the eighth day. According to Sefer HaHinuch at least, this verse is not the primary source of this commandment.  He does not list this among the 7 commandments derived from this parshah.

In his treatment of mitzvah #166 (the ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth) he makes a prefatory statement about human illness that rings true even today, especially with regard to what are commonly referred to as lifestyle diseases. Here it is in the English translation.

In his treatment of mitzvah #166 (the ritual impurity of a woman after childbirth) he makes a prefatory statement about human illness that rings true even today, especially with regard to what are commonly referred to as lifestyle diseases. Here it is in the English translation.

“There is no doubt that human illnesses come either on account of an excess in the body or a deficiency, or on account of some damage or deterioration which which it suffers from whatever cause there may be.  For in truth, as long as its nature is balanced to the utmost degree and it has not suffered any sort of damage, the body will not sicken; but the sin of people will lead them to have an excess or a lack in what is needed for their nature, and they will fall ill.” (Sefer HaHinuch, volume 2, page 201 Feldheim Publishers).

The second of our two chapters deals with a variety of skin diseases and the procedures for examining them.  Many translations render the word tza’ra’at as leprosy, but this is inaccurate.  Until the advent of antibiotics, leprosy was a disease with no known medical treatment, so lepers were permanently isolated.  In our parshah we learn that the skin conditions can be temporary, and the person (or garment) may return to health and also be restored to the community. (By the way, you can read a short article about Hansen’s disease here.

Our Rabbis struggled mightily to construct a teaching from the text of this parshah. The primary approach is to learn out that these diseases are a result of imperfections in human behavior.  Here are two:

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that skin disease results from seven sins: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy.

Similarly, a Midrash taught that skin disease resulted from 10 sins: (1) idol-worship, (2) unchastity, (3) bloodshed, (4) the profanation of the Divine Name, (5) blasphemy of the Divine Name, (6) robbing the public, (7) usurping a dignity to which one has no right, (8) overweening pride, (9) evil speech, and (10) an evil eye.

You can read the details and see the proof-texts for each of these interpretations in the Wikipedia article on our parshah.

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