Is Tazria a parashah that indexes Jewish connections between purity and community health? Jackie Mason might say that the Jewish fixation with health originated in this parashah: You begin with a spot on your skin, and you wind up with a bad back! Imagine what the Israeli comic Gil Kopetch could do with this weekly Torah commentary: skin afflictions and our political dilemmas!
We squirm in the wake of such history, looking for spiritual aggadah-especially when our portion is yoked with its common partner M'tzora (in this leap year, next week's portion, and seen as the prohibition against gossip). Surely, as commentators like Hallo, Fields, and Plaut suggest, our portion is less about medicine than ritual. What is true is that the parashah comes in the middle of our religious year and beckons us to bridge between Genesis and Deuteronomy with spiritual significance. But one meaning is plain: This portion, with or without our aggadic exegesis, reminds us that we are a very old tradition, composed of practices and beliefs that have been sublimated, distilled, and recombined beyond recognition. Once each year we must read about them even if we have given them up (as we also expect our sister religions to do with some of their ancient material).
The haftarot have often helped us elaborate Torah. But this haftarah (II Kings 4:42 - 5:19) was stymied, and the best it could do was tell of an ancient but later instance of skin affliction. A certain Na'aman defies Elisha's medical counsel to bathe in a certain river, but his servants reprove him with a simple a fortiori argument: "If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. In this case, he has only asked a simple thing of you. Follow his prescription."
This is a surreptitious window on our tradition. It seems that we, too, respond easily to complex demands; the most elaborate narratives delight our mental processes; complex economic and social demands at least challenge our ingenuity. But now we are faced with an issueless Torah portion. It sows only our determination to continue the quiet act of reading, of coming to terms with our past, and of learning the components that make us what we are today, however sublimated those components have been.
I tell my students not to indulge in ruminations about how difficult it is to speak about certain Torah portions. Now I have violated that rule. But this I can say: If we can issue dazzling thoughts about complicated demands, if we can see ourselves in the ancient stories of tradition, then surely we can respond to the simple demand to honor tradition-keep on reading!
Rabbi William Cutter is Steinberg Emeritus Professor of Human Relations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he held the Paul and Trudy Steinberg Chair in Human Relations, and was Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature and Education. HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, California.