Parashot Tazria & Metzora – Erev Shabbat 24 April 2020
Week of 19-25 April 2020
Torah portion: Leviticus 12:1-15:33 Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Theme: A Pathway to the Transcendent
A key to the meaning of these Parashot emerges at the end: “put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them” (15:31). The motivation inspiring the text is positive, protective, and life-oriented, yet the text is haunted by the ravages of defilement, which threaten both the life of this chosen people and the liturgy in its sacred space (Tent of Meeting / Temple). As Plaut clarifies (825, 829, 849), the concern here is not just ritual defilement, which excluded “unclean” persons from the sacred precincts and isolated them from human relations, no, this is “a nega, a smiting, the manifestation of extreme divine displeasure,” revealing the urgency of change.
These texts take us to the fragile edge of life, which becomes the realm of the encounter with divine power, as in the awesome experience of the tazria, a woman who gives birth, or in the painful plight of the metzora, who is afflicted with tzara’at, a scaly skin disease, often identified as the dreaded plague, leprosy. Both situations leave these persons in a state of tuma (ritual impurity) and all that they touch becomes defiled. This conception of defilement takes shape in an understanding that body fluids such as menstrual blood and human semen, as well as intercourse, were vehicles of the mysterious power of life. That power evoked fear, which construed these elements as sources of defilement. However, defilement was not restricted to sexual relations or to contact with someone whose skin was infected; tzara’at was known to infect clothing and houses as well, rendering even them “unclean” and a source of contamination for all who used them. What is the way out of this dilemma?
These Parashot offer a compassionate response. Repeatedly, we are told the remedy: purification by washing, temporary abstinence from human contact, and expiation through sacrifices at the place of worship. Hygienic practices, as in the purifications, reduced the risk of infection and the fear engendered by taboos; the corresponding sacrifices restored the person’s participation in the worshipping community. Plaut notes (825) that those cultic practices lapsed with the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet, the memory of them remains in our scriptures. What wisdom do they still hold for us? Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kol (CJN) in commenting on metzora,remarks that “The Torah seeks to use the body as a pathway to the transcendent.” This insight reflects the principle that gave shape to the Christian sacraments and to sacramentals like the sprinkling of “holy water,” or the blessing of various objects or buildings such as churches or schools, designated for the gatherings and growth of the Christian community.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Name a practice that sustains your own faith, and reflect briefly on its meaning. 2. In what communal celebration of faith have you found healing and renewed relations?
Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: 1981); Canadian Jewish News (CJN), Parashah Tazriah, April 4, 2019, and Parashah Metzora,April 11, 2019