D'var Metzorah 2008

Metzorah is the portion this week and is usually read together with last weeks’ portion of Tazria. I usually refer to the two as “the runny gushy sore portions”. In them we are regaled with laws regarding sores and lesions, eruptions on various parts of the body, discharges both regular and non and even afflictions which leap the boundary of the body and infect clothing, containers and even whole houses. It is the Bar and Bat Mitzvah student’s worst nightmare. So naturally, when I was called to offer a d’var this week I was thrilled.

One of the first things I noticed about metzorah – a person or thing afflicted with tzaarat – is that the Priest is in charge of overseeing the entire state of affairs. If a person is afflicted with tzaarat, the priest is the one who makes the first diagnosis, sends them out of the encampment, checks them later to see if the problem has cleared up, and of course handles the sacrifices. If it’s a house that has tzaarat, again it’s the priest who checks the foundations, ensures that the hazardous materials are disposed of in a proper waste containment system and re-inspects after the building has been remodeled.

I have a hard time believing that even so long ago, in a population of about 3 million Jewish men, women and children there wasn’t a single doctor or general contractor among them!

The second thing that caught my attention is that there’s really no cure offered for tzaarat. The person is secluded, the house declared unlivable, the bad bits (human our household) scraped clean… but nobody says “take 3 sheets of drywall and one termite treatment and call me in the morning”. And the priests have jurisdiction over no other affliction.

So if the problem isn’t physical, what are we talking about? We get our answer later, in parsha Beha’alotcha, when Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses and Miriam is immediately struck with tzaarat. We understand from this that tzaarat is a physical manifestation of a spiritual condition, specifically lashon hora, or evil speaking.

A lot of commentary is devoted to lashon hora – how bad it is, how far it extends (if I wonder out loud if someone is pregnant, is it lashon hora? if I say so-and-so is an amazing cook, is it lashon hora? What if I say I saw someone downtown yesterday?). By all accounts, it is one of the most difficult negative mitzvot to avoid doing. On more than one occasion when I’ve been discussing the topic, someone has said “if we can’t talk about other people, what will we talk about?”. The sages state that lashon hora is akin to triple murder – that it destroys the person speaking, the person they are speaking about, and the person they are speaking to. But I recently heard a much more illustrative story:

Imagine that each time a person sins, an angel is created and appointed to speak against us for that chet. The angel enters a room and stands quietly. Hashem stands at the front of the room, but facing away from where the angels stand. As more and more angels come into the room, each one stands silently, and Hashem does not turn around. But when we commit the chet of Lashon Horah, *that* angel comes in and begins speaking against us immediately. This in turn causes the other angels to begin speaking, and Hashem has no choice but to turn around and deal with the situation.

What I get from this story is that Hashem is willing to overlook A LOT in terms of our bad behavior, but when we speak out against another, we are unwittingly giving voice to all our faults and then there have to be consequences.

Tzaarat was the physical manifestation of in inward condition. The pressure of a negative, judgemental outlook literally erupted from inside a person to show as red or white patches on the “afflicted” individual. Like an ancient version of the Amityville Horror, when lashon hora was spoken in the home it seeped into the walls and foundation stones. Perhaps not literally, but we have all been in “toxic” environments, and perhaps wished we could somehow cleanse that space and allow it (and the people who reside there) to start fresh.

Taken in that context, the solutions are also typically, perhaps even Jewishly, common sensical. Someone who can’t refrain from speaking gossip are sent from the camp. Maybe not so much as a punishment as a chance to regroup, to gather their thoughts and get a hold of themselves. A house where lashon hora has become the norm for behavior is cleared out. It’s a safe bet that the family didn’t run to the local Motel 6. When I was 10, there was a fire in my house. For the 3 months of reconstruction, my brothers and I were shipped off to the houses of various friends, family members, people my Mom met at the grocery store, etc. We got to see a lot of different family dynamics. Similarly, I imagine that Israelite families would go off to other homes while the work of gutting and rebuilding was done, exposing people to other, healthy family environments. The family would return to a home that was fresh and clean, as were their perspectives and hopefully their habits.

Even the sacrifice made when the person or home was declared clean – two pigeons – served as a reminder since the chattering of the birds sounded like two people gossiping non stop. The fact that one bird was slaughtered – it’s blood splattered on the atoning individual, and the other then set free had to make an impact as well.

We are told that the only thing to do with an earthenware vessel that is impure is to break it. The Talmud explains that it must be broken and then glue it back together. Chasidic tradition interprets the earthenware vessel as ourselves. When we find within ourselves that which is impure, we have to be strong enough to crack that outer shell, to expose our inner core. And then the process of rebuilding can begin. In all the runny puss-y language of Tazria and Metzorah, one thing is clear – tamei happens. We become impure. Torah is telling us to accept that our transition from tahor to tamei (and back again), from the shattering discovery that we are metzorah to finally regaining taharah are part of a natural cycle.

Along with, or layered on top of that, there’s an interesting progression of parshiot this year. 2 weeks ago we read Shemini, where Aaron’s sons performed the rituals incorrectly and were blown to smithereens. Last week we read Tazria, which talked about how long someone was ritually impure. This week we read about how impurity is handled. And next week we celebrate Pesach.

I think it’s somewhat instructive. Week by week, this year, we are being taught
Pay attention to the rituals – they matter
Pay attention to your state of being, tamei or tahor – because it matters
Pay attention to how you behave, to your words and actions – they matter too.

Only after we consider those things are we ready to welcome Pesach *and* our relatives to our table. It mattered in the days when we were one community gathering in Jerusalem, it matters today, and it will certainly matter L’shana haba’ah – in that future time when we will all gather again b’Yerushalayim – in a place or state of peaceful existence.

Shabbat Shalom