"Our treatment of [these] passages will assume that we have much to learn from the Torah, even though we do not accept its authority blindly and without question" (Bamberger in Plaut Revised Edition, 643).
Parashah - M'tzora
Parashat M'tzora continues to specify the various ritual impurities that come upon the community. Commonly referred to as the leper, one with tzara'at, a scaly skin ailment, is seen as ritually impure, or tamei. They are to dwell outside the city walls for seven days. Following this period of isolation, there are stages of purification that include ritual bathing and bringing offerings to the Tabernacle. Each person who must bring these offerings is allowed to bring them according to their abilities. Therefore, no one is denied purification because they are poor. Houses may also be afflicted with a form of tzara'at. Those who dwell in these houses must vacate them while the priest inspects them and purifies them. If the house cannot be purified, it is to be taken apart, and its bricks are to be disposed of outside the city. The parashah concludes with a description of the ritual impurity brought upon by bodily discharges and a woman's menstrual cycle. Those who become ritually impure through these normal occurrences are to go through a process of cleaning and ritual bathing. Parashat M'tzora is the first place the Torah references the ritual bath.
Aliyah - Fourth aliyah: Leviticus 14:33-53
The house afflicted with tzara'at is described, as well as the process for its cleansing. Although all the other forms of tzara'at are brought on with little explanation that of the dwelling is caused by the Divine:
When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." (14:34-35).
In the afflicted dwelling, tzara'at appears like a plague with greenish and reddish streaks on the walls, presumably some sort of fungus or mold. The house is ordered closed so that people avoid it, and the contents are taken out so that they are not afflicted. People who have dwelt within the house must purify themselves by cleaning and ritual baths, the extent of which depending upon how much time was spent inside and if meals were eaten. After a quarantine of seven days, the priest returns to the house to see if the plague has spread. If the priest still finds the house unclean, it must be stripped and its stones must be dispensed of outside the city walls.
Tzara'at of the house is unlike the other forms of tzara'at and ritual impurities in this week's Torah portion. Indeed, the owner of the house must declare that something like a plague has appeared and leave the official diagnosis up to the priest. This leaves the reader to speculate on the reason God has inflicted this plague upon the house and caused the impending process of either ritual purification or destruction of the house. Nechama Leibowitz suggests it is a "Divine signal to the straying soul to return to the way of the Torah, a sublime manifestation of God's desire to bring the sinner back to Him" (Studies in Vayikra, 209). Different from an illness, the infection of the house does not harm the person as long as he or she takes appropriate measures to purify him or herself. Although we may reject the notion that people experience misfortune or illness as a punishment from God for sins, it is not uncommon to hear people describe a "close call" (either a recovery from a serious illness or the serendipity of not finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time) as a warning that caused them to rethink their outlook or behavior.
Another way to understand Leibowitz's interpretation is that the plague is a manifestation of the disease that is within the minds of those who are dwelling in the house.The impending destruction of one's house is undeniably serious. But if as a result of the combined actions and sentiments of those who dwell within an environment can infect anyone who enters it, it must be destroyed. Sometimes negativity is contagious and contaminates the whole environment. In order to cleanse themselves, the people must not only repent, but also remove themselves entirely from the toxic situation. While the priest assists in the diagnosis, this kind of purification requires those who lived in the house to take ownership the problem in order to get rid of the disease. Once sins are recognized the birds can be used as conduits to clean the house. While one bird is used as an offering to God, the other is set free from the house as a means of transporting the toxicity of the house away as it flies from the city. In the same way, heeding a wake up call to change our ways and extract ourselves from a destructive situation requires extreme actions but is ultimately liberating. We may struggle to find contemporary meaning in a 'diseased' dwelling, but we do live at a time of extreme makeovers that have extended to houses. Each generation invests new energy in making our earthly dwellings into heavenly symbols.
- Gunter Plaut suggests that tzara'at in houses did not actually occur, but rather was included so that "we may acquire merit by studying it" (Plaut Revised Edition, 760). What have you learned from the idea that an entire house could be afflicted with tzara'at?
- What does it mean to keep a house clean? Cleaning products help us remove dust and grime, but how do we deal with spiritual and moral unseemliness in the house?
- What kind of actions or ideas creates toxic environments? How do you identify such a place, and what do you do about it?
For Further Learning
In this week's parashah, a bird is set free to fly away with the sins of the house. This is a symbolic method of casting away sins, similar to the way in which we cast bread crumbs into moving water at a tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah. These rituals demonstrate physically what we must do spiritually. Do you find these rituals helpful and powerful? What steps do you go through to help you make a dramatic change in your behavior or environment?