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The Special Responsibilities of a Nation of Priests

  • The Special Responsibilities of a Nation of Priests

    M'tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat M'tzora is about otherness. It describes skin conditions that required an ancient Israelite to live temporarily outside the camp. Reading this portion makes many of us uncomfortable. We are uncomfortable because of its topic, skin diseases and their remedies; we disagree with its basic premise that ritual acts of purification will cure what we see as medical conditions; and we may wonder why this section was included in the Torah or why modern Jews continue to read and study it. The traditional midrashic commentators were also troubled, but their solutions bother me, too. In an effort to give spiritual and moral meaning to this portion, they assume that the person who is afflicted must have caused the illness: "Why is the 'leper' to be purified through the tallest of trees and the lowliest of plants? He was stricken because he exalted himself like the cedar; but when he abases himself like the hyssop, he will be healed." (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, "Parah," Plaut, p. 844) I propose a different approach to interpreting this portion.

In this portion, the Torah specifies in detail the rites of purification for a person who is cured of skin disease, tzaraat. The priest dips his finger in the blood of the sacrificial animal and places it on the right ear, the thumb, and the big toe of the person being cleansed. (Lev. 14:14, Plaut, p. 842) Earlier in Leviticus, we read about how Aaron and his sons—the people who are leading the cleansing ritual in our portion—are consecrated as priests. The consecration of the priests involves the identical ritual. (Lev. 8:23-24)

Some might say that in our day we have neither priests nor tzaraat. I believe that we have both. On Mount Sinai, before the revelation of the Torah, our people receives what Martin Buber called the first commandment: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exod. 19:6, Plaut, p. 522) In the biblical image of the ideal world, the entire nation is consecrated to the tasks of the priesthood. What are the special tasks of the priesthood? It is not just the service in the Temple and the facilitating of the sacrificial service. The priests are the special representatives of God's Presence. Our portion describes the responsibility of the priest to those who are other: "When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp." (14:2-3, Plaut, p. 841) Those who are outside—the marginalized, the other—are physically met and escorted back into the community by the priest. The priest cannot rely on hearsay or wait for those who are outside to come in; the priest's task is to go out and meet them where they are.

The rite of integration that the priest uses is a familiar one; it is the same ritual that Moses employed to consecrate the priest. Initially, the ritual was used as a marker of the priest's differentness. Here, the same ritual is used by the priest to bring the person outside back into the camp and community. The identical ritual is used to highlight the paradox of the priest's responsibility-the priest becomes other, an outsider, to fulfill the task of bringing in those who are already outsiders.

The markers of tzaraat today are different from those in ancient times. However, no less than before do our communities have people who are required to dwell outside the camp. The Torah summons us, mamlechet kohanim, the "priestly nation," to the priestly task of going forth and bringing them in.

For further reading: The Way of Response: Selections from His Writings, Martin Buber, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1966).

Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.

The Sacredness of Language
Davar Acher By: 
Bini W. Silver

As Rabbi Yoel Kahn points out, Parashat M'tzora is a Torah portion that makes many of us uncomfortable. As modern people, we view it as strange and from another time period with little connection to the modern world of the twentieth century. In many Reform temples this and the previous parashah, Tazria, are skipped over completely in the annual cycle of readings. Certainly in Parashat Metzora, as Rabbi David Wolpe comments, "We find the Bible at its most impenetrably alien." Yet despite this discomfit, this strangeness, this sense of unconnectedness, there is much for us to learn.

Traditionally, rabbinic midrash has been written to recast the word m'tzora to mean motzi shem ra, one who spreads evil words. It was argued that the skin ailments spoken of in this parashah were a punishment for evil words: for gossip, slander, lies, and misinformation. In Judaism the spreading of leshon hara is viewed as identical to the spilling of blood. As Jews we are commanded to be honest and truthful. If evil words are spread, God's desire is undetermined. We know that just as words can create, they can also destroy — they can destroy people's lives, reputations, and feelings of self-esteem. We may no longer believe that physical ailments are direct punishments for specific behavior, but the destructiveness of gossip and the like is with us always.

Judaism has always taught about the power of words. In Bereshit we read that God created the world by the use of words: "And it was so." Even today, modern magicians invoke the word, abracadabrah, to make their magic spring to life. Abara Kedabara, "It is created as it is spoken." So we must teach our children the importance of the use of words.

It is imperative that in our synagogues, in our communities, and in our homes we do all we can to guard against the spreading of evil words. Judaism teaches us that the words we speak should be chosen carefully and with forethought. The damage caused by evil words, once begun, is difficult to stop. Pinchas Peli explains that an "evil tongue destroys three people: the one who relates the gossip; the one who listens to it; and the one it concerns." Parashat M'tzora teaches us that we must be steadfast in our diligence as a community to guard against the spreading of this type of plague, this disease that can begin with hardly noticeable symptoms but, if detected in time, can be isolated and prevented from spreading.

In our world today little regard is given to what people say about others. The tabloids are filled with stories that rip apart individuals and our society at large with little regard for the inherent truth. Sensationalism is an accepted way of communication in print, on television, and in the movies we watch. When we sit at temple board and committee meetings, we must guard against the spreading of leshon hara. When we sit at our dinner table with our family, we must teach one another the sacredness of truth. From our pulpits, in our classrooms, and in our dealings with others, we must set the example of what is right and how we speak of others. If we are not careful to separate out those from our community who spread evil words, we will soon find our entire community overwhelmed with the irrevocable spreading of this dreaded disease that will destroy all in its path.

As a priestly nation, we must act in godly ways by separating out that which can make us an unhealthy community. We must rid ourselves of leshon hara and purify our words to bring blessings to those around us. Parashat M'tzora on first glance is about identifying and cataloguing sores and leprous spots, but in its reinterpretation, we can find much truthfulness about the way we treat one another and how we react as a community.

For further reading: A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Volume Two: Exodus and Leviticus, p. 104, Harvey J. Fields (New York: UAHC Press, 1991).

Bini W. Silver is the Director of Early Childhood, Youth and Family at Washington DCJCC.

4/13/1997
Reference Materials: 

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839-854; Revised Edition, pp. 750-764; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 657-678
 

When do we read M'tzora

2019, April 13
8 Nisan, 5779
2022, April 9
8 Nisan, 5782
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