No society is perfect. Each has some accomplishments and a number of deficiencies. The question is how to deal with the problems affecting its well-being at any given time. In this d'var Torah, as suggested to me by a friend of mine, I would like to raise the issue of the major plagues of our time, and our responsibility to our fellow human beings.
The Torah portion of this week, Tazria/M'tzora, has always presented preachers and youngsters celebrating their b'nei mitzvah with tremendous challenges, primarily because it deals with ritual impurities and bodily discharges that are mostly irrelevant in the post-Temple period. Besides, it covers a subject that is highly obscure. During my tenure as a congregational rabbi, I often used Deuteronomy 12:28-13:5 as an alternative reading instead ofTazria/M'tzora, as suggested in Gates of the House (ed. Chaim Stern [New York: CCAR, 1977], p. 288).
Meaning of Tzaraat
The bulk of our Torah portion deals with something called tzaraat. When the Bible was translated into Greek in the third century b.c.e., this Hebrew word was rendered as lepra, meaning "a scaly affection." In medieval times, lepra was identified with "leprosy," namely Hansen's disease. We now know that this definition is not correct for this reason: whatever tzaraat is, the text describes itas appearing not only on the body, but also in cloth and fabric (Leviticus 13:47) as well as on the walls of houses (Leviticus 14:34). On the body it could be psoriasis, eczema, or leucoderma; in cloth, fabric, and houses it could be some kind of mildew or mold.
When such a condition was discovered in a person, cloth, fabric, or house, the "priest who performs the purification" (Leviticus 14:11), whose concern was spiritual rather than medical, declared the afflicted either ritually pure or ritually unclean. In the first case, the priest resorted to some purification rituals in the sanctuary. When tzaraat was found to be permanent, the results were as follows: an afflicted individual was banned from the community (Leviticus 13:45-46), an impure cloth or fabric was burned (Leviticus 13:52), and a compromised house was torn down (Leviticus 14:45).
The rabbis who inherited the text, which they deemed to be of Sinaitic origin, interpreted these injunctions midrashically because the Temple rituals no longer existed in their day. So, using a play on words, they argued, for example, that a person afflicted with tzaraat, namelya m'tzora, is really a motzi ra, a "slanderer." This may have made for a nice sermon, but it did not reflect the true meaning of the text.
The Concept of Tumah
The Book of Leviticus deals with the idea of tumah, usually translated as "impurity." In the text, corpses, dead animals, bodily fluids, and tzaraat produce defilement. The role of the priest was to eliminate ritual impurities from the sacred Sanctuary. As The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane [London: Oxford University Press, 2004], p. 232) puts it, ritual impurity is "not created by or connected with evil spirits or malicious deities. Neither is it the same as modern notions of dirt or filth, or of infection. Rather, it is a simple fact of life, a part of nature." It can spread anywhere, and when it affects the Temple's sanctity it needs to be eliminated through some rituals. It is here that we can find a message for our time.
Toward the end of our Torah portion we find a remarkable statement: "You shall put the Israelites on guard against their impurity, lest they die through their impurity by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them" (Leviticus 15:31). Baruch Levine comments: "It is not the condition of impurity per se that evokes God's punishment, but the failure to rectify that condition so as to restore a state of purity" (The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], p. 98).
What I learn from this text and Levine's observation is this: Tzaraat is basically a nega , namely, a "plague" (Leviticus 13:2). But society's ills must not be taken as given just because humanity is imperfect. On the contrary, most modern plagues are of human origin, and it is up to us to look for means to eliminate them.
The Plagues of Our Times
For me, the most important plagues of our time are the following: the global warming that will inevitably create major changes in our lifestyle in the next few decades; the fundamentalism of religious fanatics that makes dialogue and mutual respect impossible; the inequality between the rich and the poor that pits one against the other; the curse of racism and discrimination against minorities that devalues human beings everywhere; the quick jump to military war over patience and long-term diplomacy as a way to solve problems; and above all, the lack of respect for the sanctity of human life that often ends with violence and criminal acts.
This is my list. What is yours?
These and other major problems are certainly not new and cannot be solved by one individual. Yet, as Rabbi Tarfon taught, "It is not our job to complete the work, but neither are we free to walk away from it" (Pirkei Avot 2:16). This holds even if our participation is on a limited and local basis. Our Torah portion reminds us that the priest who investigates an affliction does not close his eyes to the problem at hand, but tries to find a way of eliminating it. His methods are not ours, but his intentions ought to be.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, Massachusetts, and a faculty member of the Theology Department at Boston College. Rabbi Sonsino can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.