There's something that I think is often overlooked when we (usually briskly) read our way through parashat Tazria and parashat M'tzora.
Our readings of these parashiot will forever be illuminated/tainted (chose your verb) by the later rabbinic interpretations that read these skin conditions as a physical manifestation for a moral failure, most often associated with "gossiping" (based on word play with the Hebrew of the word m'tzora - one who has tzara'at (whatever that really is - leprosy, or a variety of other skin conditions) and the phrase motzi shem ra, a colloquialism describing a person who gossips (literally, bringing forth [from another's] name evil, thus read as "giving another a bad name.") To the rabbis and sages, tzara'at was an outer affliction of certain inner bad behaviors, notably slandering, gossiping, lying, plotting to kill, quick to do evil, being a lying witness, or causing others to fight.
Similarly, the tzara'at that affected clothing, linens, and the stone walls of houses are "marks by G"d" that indicate one who has moral failures. Thus, if your clothes or house were affected, you must be guilty of something.
I do believe these ideas taint our view of these parashiot. Knowing what we do these days about bio-feedback, it is not out of the realm of possibility that one's inner guilt or other issues might cause some physical symptom. Yet, in general, the idea that our inner moral failures are the cause of leprosy and other skin eruptions and conditions, and that G"d would mark those who sin by causing their clothing or houses to be moldy just don't square with our modern understanding of "the way things work." (Not that there aren't those in this world who might be perfectly happy believing what the rabbis and sages taught.)
And so we tend to dismiss these parashiot as irrelevant, dated, out of touch. For many, they are. I have written many times in the past of valuable lessons that we can draw from these sometimes troubling and odd parashiot, but there's one thing even I have overlooked.
Yes, Tazria and M'tzora describe how to determine if a person, linen, clothing or house has tzara'at. Yet all of those processes of determination (i.e. diagnosis) are but a prelude to what comes next: the cure. The underlying assumption throughout these parashiot is that those who develop these conditions and are thus impure can be made pure again. Had the culture truly been as primitive as some think it was, they could just as well decided to kill anyone who developed tzara'at as the quickest and most efficient way to keep the community pure.
There are rituals which one who has tzara'at must undergo in order to become pure again-but they can become pure again. Even if we apply the rabbinic interpretation, then perhaps doing t'shuva for one's moral failings is the equivalent of the priestly rituals and sacrifices used to make someone pure. And, as the rabbis teach us, t'shuva is always possible.
That is one lesson we can draw from these parashiot - that one who is impure can become pure again; one who has done wrong can make t'shuva and become right again. And the other lesson I think we can draw is that when we ourselves fall into patterns of bad or negative behaviors, to remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It will almost always require effort on our part to get back to a place when our behaviors are more positive-the point is to not give up hope. Remember that, the next time you cheat on your diet, the next time you find yourself unthinkingly engaging in gossip, the next time you cheat on your taxes, the next time you break out in a rash.
I am not so naive as to believe that the bad things that happen to us can always be made to go away. Diseases can be terminal, medical conditions can be life-long, etc. (Though I would point out that the occasional case of spontaneous remission does occur.) Nevertheless, much of those negative things happens to us, whether we bring them upon ourselves, or they simply happens to us, can be cured. Once impure does not mean forever impure. There's a lesson and a reminder to keep with us always.
©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
Tazria-Metzora 5766 -
Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News
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