The Plagues of Our Time

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

The Issue

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

How Is Your Eyesight?

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport

Tazria/M'tzora and I are old friends. She ushered me into manhood when I was thirteen years old, and thirteen years later was assigned to me for my senior sermon at Hebrew Union College. Now, she has returned to me like a bad penny-every thirteen years of my life without fail.

The problems of her text are so obscure, her subject matter is so distasteful, that her few secrets are not proper topics for polite Shabbat conversation. But amidst the quagmire of ooze and slime, Rashi unearths a tiny gem, still sparkling despite its unpleasant surroundings.

In Leviticus 13:12-13 we read: "If the eruption spreads out over the skin, so that it covers all the skin of the affected person from head to foot, wherever the priest can see . . . he shall pronounce as pure the affected person. . . ."

I can almost see Rashi's mind reeling, "If it's leprosy, then it's unclean, but if it covers the entire body it's clean? What can this mean?"

In desperation Rashi turns to the midrash. He pulls his Sifra off its shelf and there he finds this gem. The text says: "Wherever the priest can see. . . ." And the Sifra provides: "[This] excludes a priest whose sight has dimmed." That is Rashi's comment on the verse.

Consider now Rabbi Sonsino's list of modern plagues as lessons on our own failures of vision: the short-sided myopia that allows us to reek havoc on our environment without recognizing the costs not so far in the distance; the tunnel vision that allows us to look past the pain that lies right before us in the eyes of the homeless, to be blind to people of color, to ignore the plight of AIDS in Africa or genocide in Darfur.

We who are commanded to be a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6) and a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) must commit ourselves in every age to be the clear-sighted visionaries of a better world. So let me ask you, how's your eyesight?

Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport , Ph.D., is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple in Louisville, Kentucky.

Reference Materials

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656

Originally published: