Inversion Tactics: Deciding How to Interpret Words and Actions

M'tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Ben Spratt

a man upside down

Elie Wiesel shared these words with the world for Holocaust Remembrance Day:

“I still believe that one minute before one dies, there may be hope in his or her heart — one minute before one dies, he or she is still immortal. In the final analysis, I believe in man in spite of men. I still believe in his or her future in spite of what human beings have done to the principle of human dignity and human life. I believe in language, although it has been distorted, corrupted, and poisoned by the enemy. I still cling to words, for it is we who decide whether they become spears or balm, carriers of bigotry or vehicles of understanding, whether they are used to curse or to heal, whether they are here to cause shame or to give comfort.

I believe that ultimately it is we who decide whether words are to be turned into poisonous adders or into peace offerings.” (Elie Wiesel, Days of Remembrance remarks, April 23, 2009)

Ours is a tradition that relishes in the inversion of the expected. Light is created out of its opposite, the underdog overthrows established power in nearly every tale of siblinghood and national conflict; the Messiah is said to be born on Tishah B’Av, the most somber of days in the Jewish calendar year, (Jerusalem Talmud, B’rachot 17b; Eichah Rabbah 1:51) and the lowliest of thieves may become the greatest of Sages (about Reish Lakish, Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 84a). As Wiesel frames it, the very same vehicles of destruction may be paths of healing. It is we who determine the destiny of action.

Parashat M’tzora, however, posits a far less malleable vision of our world. Disease and emissions, moldy walls and eruptive affections, suggest a moral malady demanding expiation and reparation. Human ailments and afflictions are framed as divine punishment, and our impurities of body expose the taint of soul. The portion casts sex, menstruation, and illness in the light of impurity and encourages a simple worldview: that which appears to depart from expectation is itself a perversion and suggestive of deeper disorder.

This does not stop later generations from finding ways to invert the text itself. In a midrash, the affliction of moldy walls was actually an inverted blessing. By afflicting the walls with signs of spiritual taint, it forced the people to open up the walls and discover treasure that had been hidden away (Vayikra Rabbah 17:6, or Rashi on Lev. 14:34). What at first seems like painful punishment may in fact be hidden treasure. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev takes this one step further and suggests the tainted walls are metaphors for that which holds us back and limits our understanding. All struggle is a sign of spiritual growth, and whether of mind, body, or spirit, our challenges offer the opportunity to elevate sparks of divinity (K’dushat Levi on Lev. 14:34). And so when we bear witness to the struggle of another, we bear witness to a being in the process of becoming. We invert a human tendency towards withdrawal or pity into one that sees heroics.

Much of the work of modern disability theory has sought to bring greater complexity to our understanding of humanity and invert our assumptions of what defines “normal.” Many generations have cast disability much in the same light as M’tzora does malady, an indicator of underlying and even deserved issues. Some responses have been to suggest celebrating “overcoming” disability or even perceiving disability as a gateway to advantage. All of these are deeply problematic for they stem from a limited definition of expected human experience. The key is to elevate disability as a source of pride unto itself, to invert the very word into a moniker of power and potency. As Tobin Siebers wrote:

“Individuals who identify positively rather than negatively with their disability status lead more productive and happier lives. Feminism, the black and red power movements, as well as gay and disability pride – to name only a few positive identity formations - win tangible benefits for their members, freeing them not only from the violence, hatred, and prejudice directed towards them but also providing them with both shared experiences to guide life choices and a community in which to prosper.” (Disability Theory [Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008], p. 11).

What if we, like our Jewish wisdom of old, relished in inverting the expected? What would change in our assumptions of ourselves and of others? What if we looked to our own struggles and the struggles of others as the markers of living and striving rather than deserved affliction? What if we, inheritors of the texts and labels of others, chose to invert labels of disparagement into monikers of might? Perhaps this may be the most powerful legacy of M’tzora today, not in the words themselves, but in the ways those before us chose to reshape them into beacons of blessing. It is we who determine the destiny of action.

This is astutely framed in the words of Laurie Patton:

It takes time
to clean
and wrap
leprous bandages.
Elijah told the rabbi
that the Messiah
was a leper
sitting at the gates
of the city,
bandaging his wounds
one at a time.

“Ah,” said the rabbi,
“he is being thorough.
He is taking his time.”

“No,” said Elijah.
“This way,
the Messiah can come
any time he is called,
and he will not be delayed.”

He would rush out –
no time for cover
or cleaning –
what is one open sore
when the moment has come
to close the wounds
of the world?

(in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Women's Commentary [NY:WRJ and URJ Press, 2008], p. 676)

Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY.  His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.

Moving Past Discomfort to Delve into Difficult Texts

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Daniel Utley

A girl studies a page of a bookRabbi Spratt makes a valuable point suggesting that we invert this text of illness and affliction and find instead lessons that help us recognize blessings, in his words, “to invert labels of disparagement into monikers of might.” His teaching about viewing differences in our abilities and identities as positive aspects of who we are as human beings is both timely and profound.

While I value the practice of reading to find light amidst these seemingly dark passages of Leviticus, I’m reminded that it’s often our default mode as modern readers to move past the p’shat (direct or literal) reading of the text when it makes us uncomfortable or challenges our values of egalitarianism and inclusion. In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein helps us see through the awkwardness of M’tzora to find value in the conversation regarding purity. She reminds us that, “what the Torah deems as tamei (impure) and tahor (pure) is not actually attached to cleanliness, even though they are often translated as ‘unclean’ and ‘clean.’ These Hebrew words are ritual terms” (see Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary [NY: WRJ and URJ Press, 2008), p. 674).

The goal of Parashat M’tzora is to prescribe the ritual process for restoring someone to a state of tahor, ritual purity, not to clean them because they are dirty. This practice existed for the sake of the community and the sanctuary, not because a m’tzora (afflicted person) committed a sin or endured divine punishment. Ritual purity was required to keep the religious life of the community whole. If we think of our own experiences in worship, there are certainly many cycles that our bodies go through or ailments we endure that might cause us to not feel like ourselves. In today’s prayer spaces which are often open, communal, and even social, even a slight sense of dysphoria makes it really challenging to pray or achieve a mindful state. Parashat M’tzora deals with this reality according to the understandings that existed in ancient times.

The modern reader can still learn a great deal by studying M’tzora as a means to understand the rituals surrounding purity. Recently I studied this text with a bar mitzvah student named Ben, a process that initially felt just as awkward as the subject of the text! Once we were able to move past our shared discomfort, we identified an important learning opportunity that opened his eyes to an entirely new part of our Jewish community, the mikvah. Ben was curious enough about mayim chayim (“fresh water” or “living water” in Lev. 14:5) after reading M’tzora that he took it upon himself to visit our community mikvah, study the modern practices for mikvah immersion, and even immerse in the mikvah in the days leading up to his bar mitzvah.

While achieving momentary ritual purity was not Ben’s plan per se, his willingness to digest the p’shat reading of this difficult text afforded him the opportunity to learn about a ritual practice that may someday help him meet deeper spiritual goals. When we encounter a difficult or even offensive text, we should resist the urge to deploy inversion tactics right away. Great insight certainly comes through metaphor and interpretation, but the opportunity for impactful learning still exists even though the literal words are hard to hear.

Rabbi Daniel Utley is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in Dallas, TX.

Reference Materials

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1−15:33
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 657–678
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839−854; Revised Edition, pp. 750−764
Haftarah, Shabbat HaGadol, Mal. 3:4-24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,654-1,656; Revised Edition, pp. 1,459-1,461

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