Parashat Tazria/Metzora – Erev Shabbat 16 April 2021
Week of 11-17 April 2021
Torah portion: Leviticus 12:1-15:33 Haftarah: 2 Kings 7:3-20
Theme: Be careful how you speak
In this week’s Torah portion, the Biblical text continues the discussion of the laws of purity and impurity. Taking up last week’s teaching about contamination caused by dead animals the text moves on to forms of contamination manifesting themselves directly on the human body. Today’s Parasha is situated in the very center of the Chumash, the five books of Torah, between the preceding Torah portion reminding the people of Israel: “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45) and the following Parashat Acharei, which will explain at great length the holiest of all Jewish holidays, the day of forgiveness, Yom Kippur.
After a brief discussion of the laws of ritual impurity due to childbirth, Parashat Tazria presents at great length the laws of tzaraat, calling the person infected by tzaraat a metzora. For hundreds of years, tzaraat has been translated and interpreted as “leprosy”, following the Septuagint. However, this translation is incorrect, as proven by many commentators (cf. Scherman, p. 609). As the text shows, tzaraat is used as a comprehensive term for several conditions referring to a whiteness of skin, a falling off of the hair, and even to a change of color in garments as well as a type of ‘fungus’ on houses.
The Jewish sages agree that tzaraat resulted directly from the sin of lashon hara: slander, evil speech, explaining that metzora can be read as motzi ra, meaning “one who spreads slander” (Arachin 15b, quoted by Scherman, p.610). A very prominent example in the Torah where slander results in the manifestation of tzaraat is Miriam, who is smitten with this disease after speaking slanderously about Moses, her brother (cf. Num 12; Deut 24: 8-9).
Jewish tradition holds that tzaraat describes a spiritual disease, manifesting itself bodily. Rabbi Hirsch underlines that the disease will heal as soon as the metzora will experience a change of heart and mind and will mend his/her ways (cf. Scherman, p.620). The Torah describes several necessary stages of purification, involving the separation of the respective person into quarantine and the offering of sin offerings.
According to the rabbis, the phenomenon of tzaraat was reserved to biblical times, specifically to the time of the people of Israel, when God was dwelling in the camp of his people. Due to this special closeness and his presence among his people, holiness had to be preserved. Thus, individual sin immediately had an impact on the whole community. Tzaraat exemplifies how an individual offense becomes publicly visible – as a warning to others – hence the command that it be taken care of and pronounced as cured by the priest to restore the whole community. Lashon hara is a very serious offense in the Torah with grave repercussions on relationships and whole communities. Today it may not show as a change of skin texture but it remains certain: speech matters, it is not only informative but performative, and used unwisely, can still endanger human co-existence.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Why speak lashon hara at all? 2. How can we refrain from it?
Bibliography: Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Chumash with commentary from the Rabbinic writings, The Stone Edition (New York: 1995).
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Barbara Kauffmann, Germany, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010, 2011, 2012