We come now to two portions that baffle modern Bible students perhaps more than any others - so much so that rabbis and teachers tend to look for anything else they can study this week. Not so, with us!
We believe this is the word of God and that it speaks to us. It may, as we have said, be clothed in garb that fit the fashion of another day. It may even have a body suited to ancient times. But it has a soul eternal in nature and that speaks to people of all times, including ours. So, with a little trepidation but a lot of faith, let’s dig in.
Let’s start with a basic understanding of something very important to the people who first encountered this text. Since God dwelled among them in sacred space, it was of the greatest importance that they be “pure” in it. Impurity was, simply, offensive to God, in their deepest belief. Further, the ancients had a variety of beliefs that responded to the mysteries of childbirth, the workings of, and discharges from, the body, blood, disease, and death that do not correspond exactly with ours. This is not to say that we don’t carry over some of these attitudes or have some supra-rational ideas of our own. We’ll consider the ancient language because we respect it and it, too, resonates in ways even to our times, but, mostly, we’ll look deeper for more universal meaning.
Let’s be humble as moderns: the concerns reflected in this text were powerful and prevalent for centuries in the ancient world, and respect for this text has been so strong and enduring that for centuries after the Temple no longer stood and these practices no longer were considered directly applicable, sages would try to understand and explain what it might mean. We’ll join with them in exploring the ancient words, but we’ll spend even more time trying, once we understand the Hebrew words better, to see what the profound underlying meaning here might be for us.
We spent time in last week’s portion considering the importance of what we put into our bodies. This week we’ll look at what comes out and what it means. If the teaching that we must look beneath the clothes to the body and through the body to the soul is ever to be helpful to us, it most certainly will be so for us now!
I. Let’s start by reading 12:1-5.
A. Now, this is hard - because of the complex work I want us to tackle today, I have to beg your understanding in the decision that we will not be able to look at two really interesting issues that pop out of these verses: 1) the matter of circumcision, and 2) the matter of why there is a different period for waiting for a girl baby than for a boy. They’ll be for another day.
B. Let’s start with some Hebrew. In verse 2, I have the English word, “impure,” and in verse 4, I have the idea of a period of “purification.” Are those the words in your translation? The Hebrew for impure is tamah, or tamei, and the word for purification is taharah, or tahor. So, in essence, we have tamei/tahor, or impure/pure as the words before us.
C. Here are the first questions: what’s “impure” about a woman having a baby, and could there be something going on here that we might miss from just a surface reading?
(We know there was an ancient fear about the “impurity” of the blood in childbirth as well as other concerns about the mysteries of that process and the woman undergoing it. We could leave it at that. Or we could ask: is there something else that might be at play here that might be important beyond ancient cultural fears? Is there a meaning here that is quite important and in away related to purity but that is far different than what we sense from the ordinary negative connotation we get from the word, impurity?
(Are there dramas in life that should be experienced wholly and not be jammed right up to another? Indeed, aren’t there some that, even more, require a transition, before engaging in another major drama? It’s not so much that there’s impurity; it’s more that the two experiences don’t fit next to each other, and each should be pure, that is, with its own integrity.
In giving birth, the mother is on the border of life, active centrally in God’s miracle, we pray, of giving life to another human being. This may be one of the most extraordinary of several dramas where the moment and all those surrounding it ought to be pure, so to speak. And, there should be a separation or a transition between them and the fundamental drama of encounter with God in sacred space, in worship and devotion, with others who have come for that encounter, which itself should be pure.
This is not to say at all that God is not with the mother in childbirth. The Divine presence surely can be felt there. It is simply to distinguish the experiences, which are different, and to respect, honor, and be true to the differences.
We act as if we can move easily from one major experience in life to another. And we so often do so, robbing ourselves and those we’re with of the wholeness each experience deserves and requires. If we have to use the words, pure and impure, perhaps we could use them to denote living in a way that honors each major drama of life as deserving of respect and integrity and being lived wholly, rather than jammed up next to another.
We’ll encounter other such dramas as we proceed through this book, so keep these lessons learned in mind. We will look for elements of these dramas that may at some level instruct us as to why they, in particular, call for a separation.)
II. Let’s now enter the strange world of tzara’at and try to understand what it is. This, too, involves a condition that leads to a separation from sacred space, but it is, pardon my colloquialism, a “different kettle of fish” than the dramas of life about which we were just talking. Let’s begin to get a feel for it by reading Leviticus 13:1-9.
A. Very odd, huh? Let’s review what this and later verses tell us. There are symptoms of swelling, rashes, and discoloration in the skin, a sort of spreading or scaly affection, with other unusual characteristics, that are seemingly deeper than the skin, perhaps a decaying.
The details of what is tamei and what isn’t as to tzara’at, and how to tell, goes on for the rest of this very long chapter, for all of its 59 verses. Now before I ask you some questions, let me give you a few of these details: 1) the examination for tzara’at is done by the priest, not, as was typical in Israelite culture, a person with knowledge and skill of physical or medical health; 2) the condition apparently also can afflict garments and, as we’ll learn in the next portion, houses, and the examining official remains the priest, not a cloth maker or a house builder or repairer; and 3) while there is a concern about the condition’s spreading and a desire to confine the truly afflicted person away from the community, there is no clear consistency in separation related to any reasonable requirements of a physical health-oriented quarantine, including any concern about the priest “catching” it.
B. Let’s start with verse 8 where my Bible translates tzara’at as leprosy. Does yours? My oh my. I have handed out an article on leprosy. For those of you who have read it and all these verses, help us out: is the condition described in the Bible leprosy? Is the condition on the garments leprosy? If it’s not leprosy, what is it?
(No, it’s not. Scholars have attempted to identify each of these conditions as other diseases, generally with limited success. And to the extent they appear to be close to other maladies, what still do we make of their identification here as leprosy? Is this simply a reaction to fear of a range of possible diseases that have these characteristics? Or do you think there might be something else at work?
Let me help by informing you there are three notable cases of Biblical figures who were afflicted with tzara’at: 1) Miriam, after she spoke ill of Moses, 2) Gahazi, who was duplicitous with Naaman in obtaining a reward that Elisha had already turned down (2 Kings), and King Uzziah, who burned incense on the altar, though that was a role reserved exclusively to the priest.)
C. So, let me ask again: what are your thoughts about this “spreading affection” that concerns God and the community so much that it necessitates an examination by the priest and a separation, if diagnosed, along with some process that we’ll talk about in a moment for reintegration into the community? Don’t be afraid to be metaphorical!
(This is very complex material with a real mystery to it. And it does most likely reflect an anxiety about physical disease - whether real or imagined. But I believe, and as I will point out in a moment, I’m not alone in where I’m headed, I believe this is fundamentally the most metaphorical language we will encounter in Torah.
I see this whole discussion at its deepest level to be about something of the absolute greatest concern, something that really does operate beneath the skin and has very much of a spreading character. I believe this is a very powerful and rich and metaphorical discourse about sin - one that reflects concern, indeed fear, about how it forms, how it spreads, and how it can take over a person and taint, and even damage or destroy a community. And there is a special anxiety about it coming in, in whatever state it has evolved in a person, to the space where we encounter the Divine.
Sages think first of the sin of slander. That’s what was what brought on the malady for Miriam. Indeed it follows nicely the concern from the last portion about what goes into the mouth. Here it is crucially about what goes out of the mouth.)
1. Let me ask this: how does slander itself correspond so well to the metaphor of a spreading affection?
(The idea to slander another generally forms in the mind out of an unhealthy emotion or intention to do harm. Then, after planning, the actor moves into action, likely feeling justified and “honest” to start, with a “justifiable” purpose. Generally, the malice and the hurtful speech pick up steam, and then it’s out and causing harm. Once it’s out, it’s out, and cannot easily be retrieved, and the damage has had its impact and is hard, if impossible, to repair. Now that’s a spreading affection to worry about!)
2. By reflecting on what I told you about Gehazi and Uzziah, what other sins clearly fall into the set of what concerns God here?
(We see theft in a surreptitious manner, and see a quietly and perhaps hidden expropriation of another’s God-designated role. The sages add haughty eyes, a mind that hatches evil, a vain oath, inciting brothers to quarrel, and miserly behavior, among others.)
3. How would these actions fit into a set of worrisome spreading affections?
(They begin in a quiet place in the heart, and the actor may not fully understand or believe it’s wrong, or at least that he’ll get caught. In fact, it’s hard to detect and hard to punish, yet it can do real damage. Further, once others realize it can happen and the perpetuator can get away with it, the temptation grows, and it becomes likely that others will do it. Finally, they typically involve a small bending of the rules that tends to lead to a larger bending, with the need to excuse expanding with the offense.
4. This idea of searching out the symptoms or pre-conditions of emergent sin is not new to our study of the Bible. Let’s read Genesis 4:6-8. And then I’ll ask why do I mention this passage.
(There are signs in Cain of a spreading affection. We have warning signs!
This is more of a spiritual disease, no? It has to do with emotional imbalance, ethical weakness. Yet, it has outward, even physical manifestations. They show in his face and his anger. God sees it (as the priest does in our portion), and God beseeches Cain to treat it, for, if he does not, sin is crouching at the door, waiting to actualize what is still nascent, yet emerging. And, of course, we see the awful end of this affection, when not controlled and allowed to spread to its full measure. Isn’t this exactly the same phenomenon that we see in our portion?)
5. Now let me ask you a series of questions about the priest: a) why is it that the priest does the checking rather than a person expert in physical health, the making or repair of garments, or the builder or repairer of houses?, b) what is the priest looking for?, c) why we don’t fear the priest “catching” the condition: and d) why does the priest have the greatest interest in diagnosing and curing this condition?
(These questions should be rhetorical by now in the study.)
6. The fact that the symptoms are complex and seemingly not quite descriptive of any purely physical disease drives even more powerfully to the truth of the metaphor of spiritual or moral disease, I think. Lest you think this is just “Bible by Sandy Kress,” rest easy! I may carry metaphor unusually far, but there are several sages and commentators, notably Samuel Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century rabbi and scholar, who walked this path of interpretation long before me, and certainly more ably.
III. Now let’s look at the “treatment” for tzara’at.
A. Read 13:45. And, as we get into the portion, M’tzora, let’s read 14:1-12, to get a feel for the process. So, digging below the surface words, what are the basic elements of treatment?
(It would appear to be a process of diagnosis, declaration by person of condition, isolation from camp, visits by priests, reflection and probing into one’s heart all the way to the inclinations, a humbling, the healing hand of God, a “cleansing process,” an entry back into the camp but not yet the tent, a further week of transition, then an offering and a ritual before restoration to normal life, including entry into sacred space.
It would not surprise you that the rabbis would throw into their opining the idea that Bible study should be a part of that process! They would say that we must do our part, but the antidote can really only ultimately come from God.)
B. Again, be metaphorical: how would this translate? Choose whatever description you might like, but consider this: what might Cain have done, if he had followed God’s warning before his inclination to sin was actualized?
(Basically, these steps suggest a process for recognizing and then rooting out that which inclines us, when acted upon, to fall prey to the spreading affection, as well as to rid us of “disease” caused by the spreading affection, of wrongdoing. The elements aren’t exactly what we find in, say, 12 step programs, but, as staged, they do suggest a reasonable, phased strategy that is worth our further thought and exploration. Specifically, the timing and staging of the process in the text, while mysterious to us, has the general feel of beginning with a condition that may be less serious, perhaps innocent, or at least curable, and culminating when the condition has gotten very serious, and, if curable at all, quite complex and challenging to treat.
For example, we have the distinct feeling that it only gets harder for Cain to pull out of the downward spiral that has begun within him and is not or cannot be controlled by him. At each stage, the remedy gets harder, the possibility of a very damaging sort of sin greater, and the consequences to Abel and himself evermore dire. God appears to Cain to stop him or give him the warning and the prescription, as the Divine has done with us, when there is time and opportunity to turn back.)
C. Read 14:34-45. Why would we worry about garments and houses?
(Do we carry our inclinations to wrongdoing in our “force field,” in our clothes, our bearing, our ways of living, “in the air” of our environment, our homes? We certainly have a feeling when we’re in a blessed home. Don’t we, as well, when we’re in one that we know to be corrupt? I think the point is we should look for signs of how we might taint or corrupt the world around us, seek to treat it, if we can, or dismantle what can’t be brought back to right. Sin can destroy not just us but also what’s around us - friends, family, community. We must be mindful, watchful, and take action to clean, to wipe away, to rebuild, and to restore and return, as needed.)
IV. Chapter 15 discusses various discharges from the body and the need to have a separation from the experience of such things, including sex, of course, and entry into sacred space. We don’t have time to discuss this at length today, but I invite you to consider again whether there are major times of real life drama in our lives that warrant separation and transition. We’ll look at this and the ways in which immersion in water have a particularly “cleansing,” that is, transitional effect, in future study.
We have continued this week our exploration of sacred space and its place and purpose in helping us prepare to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Today we went on a journey - mostly - through, I believe, the remarkable, metaphorical land of tzara’at. This trip is an important one in its teaching us about the nature and treatment of sin. At its core, I find that the wisest sages seem to see through all those clothes and all that body a picture of the evil inclination - its nature, the danger it poses, the ways of detecting how it works, and God’s asking us to overcome it and giving us gifts to us to do so.
There’s an insight in the lovely Artscroll edition of the Midrash Leviticus with which I want to close today:
“It is wrong to think of sin as something external or peripheral, as something that can be cast aside at will. Every sin leaves a mark, and that mark is commensurate with the sin. Some sins are similar to the tzara’at spot that need only be sequestered and then, after the passage of time, can be pronounced pure. Others are like the tzara’at affliction that must be healed, and if not it deepens and spreads.
Rambam writes that the soul is subject to health and sickness just like the body…..
The lesson of the metzora is clear: Sin is reality - a real sickness. But the Healer of all flesh and spirit has provided the antidotes and remedies as well. He has given us the means to return our souls and spirits to vigorous health, for now and for all eternity.”
Amen to that.