Parashat M'tzora is one of those Torah portions that-at first glance-contains subject matter that doesn't seem to speak to the religious strivings or spiritual sensibilities of contemporary Reform Jewry. Its topics include purification rites for people with leprosy or other skin eruptions and for houses in which mold appears. Leviticus 14 begins by discussing the end of the illness, when the leper has healed and the priest starts the purification process. It includes a list of the offerings made by the priest, the process of cleansing of the leper, and then, on the eighth day, the sacrifices that the healed leper must bring (Leviticus 14:1-20). This is followed by a list of the sacrifices and the process for a poor person who has healed (Leviticus 14:21-32). Leviticus 14:33-57 describes the parallel priestly ritual to purify a house with mold on its walls, what happens to the removed stones-or all of the building materials if the house has to be destroyed-and the containment of ritual impurity for those who live in the home. Chapter 15 continues the same themes of purification and sacrifice, this time for men and women who experience a variety of skin or body problems in which there is an emission or flow. Excellent discussions of the details of this Torah portion can be found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (rev. ed., ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005]) and in The Torah: A Women's Commentary (ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008]).
Although the parashah is of great interest to scholars whose focus is on matters of sacrifice, ritual purity and impurity, and disease in the biblical period, it would seem a stretch to connect its content with contemporary religious or spiritual themes. Yet that is just what our Rabbinic ancestors did, and their example can offer us a model for interpretation. In a comment on the importance of Torah, "For this is not a trifling [lit., 'empty'] thing for you"(Deuteronomy 32:47), Rabbi Akiva (or Rabbi Yishmael) said, "If the Torah is an empty thing, it is because of you, because you don't know how to expound it" ( B'reishit Rabbah 1:14)! So let's try to expound this parashah in relation to topics both ancient and modern: slander and sliding scales.
In a sermon on our parashah found in Vayikra Rabbah 16 (fifth century c.e.), the ancient Sages took their topic from a play on the word ( m'tzora , "leprosy"). They used it as an acronym for the Hebrew phrase motzi [sheim] ra , which means "slander"or "spreading false rumors"because of the shared letters, mem, tzadi, vav, reish, ayin . Their theme was that slander is a terrible and certainly dangerous action: the slanderer is punished and becomes a leper . Midrash Tanchuma , M'tzora , par. 4 (ed. S. Buber [New York: Sefer, 1946], pp. 22b-23a) expresses the view that an act of slander has the potential to kill three people: the one who utters it, the one about whom it is uttered, and the one who listens to it. Regarding the first view, although we might balk at the simplistic notion of verbal sin and physical punishment, the field of psychoanalysis, from Freud's time to the present, has helped us understand the profound impact of psychological states on physical well-being. On the second view, one need only recall the tragic end of the life of Princess Diana to recognize that the public's passion to see a celebrity disgrace celebrated in the media caused paparazzi to hound and chase her to death. (I'm grateful to my pilates instructor, Susan Lonergan, for suggesting this example.)
Parashat M'tzora distinguishes among the kinds of sacrifice to be brought by the leper, based on the leper's economic position. The (presumably) wealthy person brings "two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil"(Leviticus 14:10). The poor man brings only "one male lamb for a reparation offering, to be elevated in expiation, one-tenth of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and a log of oil; and two turtledoves or two pigeons-depending on that person's means . . ."(Leviticus 14:21-22).
In Rabbinic literature, the sacrifices in which there is a distinction between wealthy and poor are called ( korban oleh v'yored ). This has been translated variously as "an offering of higher or lesser value"(Babylonian Talmud, Kerithoth 10b [London: Soncino Press, 1989], p. 21) or "a Rising and Falling Sin-Offering"( Mishnah K'ritot 2:4, trans. Herbert Danby [London: Oxford University Press, 1933], pp. 565ff.). The translation "sliding-scale sacrifice"gives this phrase a more contemporary sense, similar to "proportional dues,"a concept that recognizes the relative economic positions of various members of a congregation. The Mishnah (the earliest postbiblical code of Rabbinic law, ca. 200 C.E.) and the corresponding Gemara detail the five persons whose relative wealth or poverty has an impact on the value of the sacrifice that is brought:
The following persons bring an offering of higher or lesser value: one who refuses to give evidence, one who has broken the word of his lips [supported by an oath], one who while unclean has entered the sanctuary or has partaken of holy things, a woman after confinement and a leper. (Babylonian Talmud, K'ritot 10b)
The Babylonian Talmud discusses the various kinds of offerings and relative quantity or monetary value of the offering of the poor in comparison to the rich. Although it is difficult to find a common thread that would unite these five different types of persons, the fact of the obligation for rich and poor, irrespective of sin or situation, emphasizes a value based in biblical literature, expanded by the Rabbis and needing to be emphasized in our own time. That is, there are obligations that fall on every member of society that ought to be apportioned on a sliding scale and in ways that are fair to everyone. The great philosopher, halachist, and doctor Maimonides (1138-1204), paraphrasing the Babylonian Talmud ( Gittin 7b), stated: "Even a poor person who is sustained by charity is required to give charity to another"( Mishneh Torah , Laws of Gifts of Poor 7:5). If this is a good principle regarding the poor, it certainly applies regarding the rich. The economic gap between poor and rich in American society is now as bad as it was in 1913, nearly a century ago-and the U.S. tax code works to benefit only one side. A similar economic gap has developed in the State of Israel in the last few decades. It is reasonable and a deeply embedded concept in Jewish tradition that responsibility for the common good in civil society needs to be apportioned based on the economic capacities of members of society. Perhaps Parashat M'tzora does have a contemporary message for Reform Judaism!
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.