This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. (Leviticus 14:2)
The priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. (Leviticus 14:4)
When you enter the land of Canaan that I gave you as a possession and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess... (Leviticus 14:34)
This is the week of Shabbat HaGadol, the "Big Sabbath" that precedes Pesach each year. In our preparations for the journey from Mitzrayim--historically the "Egypt" of our ancient enslavement and midrashically the "stuck places" of our present enslavements--we cannot help but encounter our own uncleanness. Perhaps we have lost sight of the greater intentions of our lives; perhaps we have neglected the devotion that once infused our relationships; or perhaps we have forgotten the deeper nature of our own beings. Each year we are called upon to explore the ways in which we have become stuck in our lives. Each year we are challenged to utilize our Passover observance as rituals through which we can move beyond our present state of being stuck.
In last week's parashah, Tazria, we learned that the m'tzora (leper) with his tzara-at (affliction) had to be removed from the community: "Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46). Illness often sets us apart, and when a sickness lingers, our distance from others grows. In our isolation, we often find ourselves identified by our illness. This experience of separation from others also reflects an alienation from ourselves. When we find ourselves defined by our problems, we have already forgotten the more profound dimensions of our being.
This week's parashah speaks to our emergence from that isolation and describes rituals of return and reintegration. We emerge changed, and we need to have those changes noticed and accepted by both our community and ourselves. When we are reintegrated into our community, the deeper healing can take place.
The S'fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) suggests that Parashat M'tzora opens with the words "This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed" (Leviticus 14:2) in order to teach a crucial lesson about both illness and enslavement. The words translated here as "ritual for a leper" are Torat ham'tzora, literally, "the Torah (Teaching) of the leper", "for his Torah is in his being sent far off" ( S'fat Emet3:141). Torah can also be translated as a "way," signifying that our illnesses as well as our problems are themselves part of the healing. What we believe to be the curse of our current reality may, in fact, also contain the deep teaching, the Torah, that we need most.
When the tzara-at is healed and the one who is identified as a m'tzora is ready to reenter the community, the Torah presents a surprisingly elaborate procedure. We will focus on the first such ritual, which involves two birds (Leviticus 14:4-7).
In this ritual, one bird is slaughtered, and its blood is caught in a bowl of mayim chayim, "living water." The living bird, along with cedar wood, crimson material, and hyssop, is dipped into the blood and living water and then released.
The S'fat Emet suggests that the birds atone for two sins: the sin of idle chatter and the sin of evil talk. He then notes that the bird that is set free is meant "to prepare the mouth and tongue to speak words of Torah" (S'fat Emet 3:143).
We might also understand the birds to symbolize two identities. One bird represents the end of an illness, and the other represents the beginning of a new sense of wholeness and well-being. The bird that is killed assumes the identity of the sick person, the one defined by a particular problem. The blood represents the energy of belief that sustains that identity. Once that energy is gone, the old identity is no longer supported. During the ritual, the new identity, the living bird, assumes the energy of belief. This new identity of wellness, of wholeness, is then released into the world just when the former "leper" is about to reenter the community.
At the conclusion of this ancient ritual, the former m'tzora enters the camp but remains outside his dwelling for seven days. This reminds us that it takes time to reenter the world following the isolation of illness: It takes time to adjust to a new identity. The sacrifices offered at the conclusion of the seven days serve to publicly introduce the individual to his community: He is welcomed as a "new" person.
The text then speaks of the tzara-at that can affect our homes. Rashi comments that the plague of tzara-atappears in order to help us find the treasure hidden by the Canaanites in the walls of their homes. On the other hand, the S'fat Emet cautions us that since our homes can hold destructive as well as holy energies, 'we have to bring the light of holiness into all of our possessions." The plague of tzara-at that can fall on our houses reminds us that even "in the most corporeal of objects, there are hidden sparks of the greatest holiness" (S'fat Emet3:139).
Our task is to honor that holiness within our bodies, within our minds, and within our homes.
By the Way
- The midrash says that the ways of the Blessed Holy One are not like those of man. Man cuts with a knife but heals the wound with a bandage, while God heals with the very same thing by which He wounds. The wound itself is the healing! (S'fat Emet 3:141, quoted in The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet by Arthur Green, JPS, 1998)
- The basic ground for compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than strugglingagainst, and what I mean by that is working with your own unwanted, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and the unwanted appears out there, you relate to it based on having worked with loving-kindness for yourself. (Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, Shambala, 1994, p. 103)
- "Suffering by itself is no cure; it only cures us when we have the right attitude toward it" (John A. Sanford,The Man Who Wrestled with God, Religious Publishing Co., 1974, p. 28). Can you relate this statement to your own experiences? How can our attitudes about our experiences change?
- "Panic arises from belief in a feared outcome. Hope is belief in a desired outcome... Illness can be a powerful motivating force. It presents an opportunity for learning and personal growth since humans often grow through the challenge of adversity." (Barbara Hoberman Levine, Your Body Believes Every Word You Say, WordsWork Press, 2000, pp. 142, 144). Do you think that this is true? If so, why do you think we need to experience adversity in order to grow?
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, Seattle, WA, and a writer and spiritual counselor.