Category Archives: Metzorah

Spiritual First Responders (Tazria-Metzora)

Spiritual First Responders (Tazria-Metzora)

A man of courage is also full of faith. -Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

It’s fascinating and even a little eerie, that the Torah, written more than 3,300 years ago, already prescribes ideas of quarantine, isolation, contagion and social distancing millennia before the modern world figured it out for itself.

This week’s Torah reading of Tazria-Metzora deals with the spiritual-physical malady known as Tzaraat. It was an unusual skin condition that was the result of a spiritual-ethical failing, most commonly attributed to gossiping, but could also be caused by a host of other shortcomings. Tzaraat should not be confused with leprosy, an incorrect translation that is often used.

The Torah further details the treatment protocol of someone infected with Tzaraat. The afflicted person needed to be seen by a Kohen who would determine if it was indeed Tzaraat. If the Kohen confirmed that it was Tzaraat, the patient needed to leave their house, leave the entire encampment of Israel and remain in isolation until the Tzaraat was gone. The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 13:2 delves deeper into the disease and specifically those tasked with intervention, the Kohens.

According to the Meshech Chochma, quoting Talmudic sources, Tzaraat was highly contagious. It may be that it was not necessarily from the physical transmission, but rather because the infected person suffered from a defect of the spirit, an ethical virus, that could easily be transmitted to someone with a weak spiritual immune system or other underlying spiritual maladies. That is one of the reasons the infected person would have to call out “impure, impure,” so people would know to avoid him and practice social distancing from him.

Because of the danger of the disease, and its possibility to easily infect others, one group from within Israel, the Kohens, who had already been separated and sanctified from within the rest of the people of Israel, were tasked with treating Tzaraat. The Kohens were designated to be the first responders, the doctors, and nurses who would check, diagnose, treat and tend to these spiritually afflicted people, even though the job took them out of their normal working environment of the Tabernacle. The Meshech Chochma states that the special designation of the Kohens gave them unique protection against the corrosive danger of the spiritual virus at the heart of Tzaraat.

The Kohen’s ancient role in Israel was to facilitate a Jew’s connection with God in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple in Jerusalem. They braved an encounter with the dangerous virus of Tzaraat out of faith. The Kohen’s mission of being the spiritual physician of the people in turn provided him with protection against the spiritual virus.

May we all achieve and maintain spiritual and physical health and avoid viral infections of any sort.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of the Holocaust survivors, including my grandparents, Jakob and Ita Spitz z”l.

The Eye of Abundance (Metzora)

 The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar, and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition. -W. H. Auden

The Torah reading of Metzora deals in part, with ritual contamination and the required process of purification. The Berdichever connects the process with our anthropomorphizing of God’s attributes as well as the concept of subservience of some human capabilities to the will of God.

When the Torah or the Prophets attribute human characteristics to God, it creates a theological conundrum. When we speak of God hearing or God seeing, how does that work? Does God have ears? Does God have eyes? What would be the form and shape of those human-like organs? How do those divine senses work? Where in space are they situated?

The answer is that when the Torah or the Prophets talk about God’s hand or eyes or feet, it is only a metaphor. When it speaks of God’s eye it is a metaphor for the fact that God perceives. God “sees” without needing eyes or having any physical attributes. God is not limited in space or time. It is impossible for a human to understand, hence we rely on the simple and crude anthropomorphization.

On the other hand, the Berdichever discusses our very human faculties, specifically sight, hearing and speech and then focuses on the sense of sight and relates it to God’s “sight.” There is a deep and intrinsic connection between human sight and divine sight.

God has blessed us with a number of faculties and abilities. We can use these for good or we can use them for evil. The eye is not an impartial sense. The eye can be used to gaze upon good and wholesome views, and it can likewise be used to look upon bad, improper and outright detestable sights.

The Berdichever explains that if we God-forbid gaze upon inappropriate things, then the divine “eye,” the eye that is responsible for determining the blessings and the abundance that we receive will be “closed” to us. However, if we use our vision for good things, for beneficial things, then the divine vision will see to it that we are appropriately blessed.

Hence, one of the prayers to God where we ask Him to “open” His eyes. We are admitting to our guilt and to the realization that the divine eye has been closed to us. Now that we’ve admitted our guilt and hopefully are mending our ways, we are now asking God to open His eyes. To bless us. To realize that we are human, that we have erred, but that we are redoubling our efforts to mend our ways and use our divine gifts in His service.

May we use all of our attributes for good and God, and benefit from growing blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all Israeli voters, and to the Zehut candidates, volunteers and voters in particular. Thank you. Our efforts were not in vain.

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Easy Murder (Tazria-Metzora)

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them. -Alice Sebold

The Torah spends several chapters on the ritual treatment of a biblical spiritual malady called “Tzaraat” popularly mistranslated as leprosy. The person who suffered from the Tzaraat, called a “Metzora”, while not a leper, did suffer from an unusual skin condition that was cured in biblical times by exile from the camp and then a ritual purification and sacrifice process.

Most rabbinic commentators explain that the malady of Tzaraat affected primarily those guilty of gossiping. Gossiping was so onerous a crime that God Himself would alter the laws of nature and personally intervene to strike the offending gossiper with this strange and unusual malady.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 14:2 (Metzora) quotes the Talmud that states that gossiping is so horrendous that it is actually worse than murder, illicit relations and idolatry COMBINED.

I always thought this Talmudic dictum somewhat of an exaggeration, until I had the misfortune to witness first-hand the destruction caused by gossip. It has to do with cutting bonds.

Murder is the cutting of the bond of life; cutting off or destroying the connection between a body and a soul.

Illicit relations is the cutting of the bond of family. Adulterers destroy the bond between a husband and wife, sabotaging that basic unit of society.

Idolatry is the cutting of the bond with God. Idolaters sever the connection between man and the divine.

Then why is gossiping worse than all three of the cardinal sins put together? Because a gossiper destroys all of these bonds, and more. Gossip destroys the bonds of self, of family, of faith, and of community. It is a betrayal of the trust that is inherent in any group, destroying all the bonds that make us who we are. There are few murders that are worse than that.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds another Talmudic dictum that gossip kills three people. It kills the gossiper, it kills the listener and it kills the person being gossiped about.

So the next time you want to share a juicy or even innocuous tidbit about someone you know, think again. You may be committing murder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Devorah and David Katz on the opening of their new bakery location of Pat BaMelach in Efrat. Check it out!

It’s not leprosy!

It’s not leprosy!

When the world has got hold of a lie, it is astonishing how hard it is to kill it. You beat it over the head, till it seems to have given up the ghost, and behold! the next day it is as healthy as ever.  -Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

The Torah describes a condition called Tzaraat, which has continuously and erroneously been translated as leprosy. The only connection between these two terms is that they refer to some skin condition, but except for that they are dissimilar and incomparable.

One of the most important Roman historians, Tacitus, is guilty of a great crime against the Jewish people. Besides his anti-Semitic rhetoric, perhaps the most long-lasting damage has been his interpretation of the Hebrew word Tzaraat as leprosy. Tacitus, almost 2,000 years ago, wrote the following fanciful account in his history of the Jews:

“Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods.”

“The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random.”

Tacitus continues to spout further venomous nonsense, which centuries later was picked up by modern historians.  However, perhaps Tacitus’ greatest offense is that his characterization of Tzaraat as leprosy has even made it into modern translations of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus Chapter 13 attacks “Tacitus’ fairy tale” and provides a detailed and lengthy explanation of exactly how Tzaraat has nothing to do with the disease known as leprosy. Tzaraat is not contagious nor were those afflicted quarantined.  Tzaraat is a physical manifestation upon the skin of a spiritual malady. The result of a person contracting Tzaraat is that he is considered ritually impure, not sick.

In the words of Rabbi Hirsch, Tzaraat is the result of “such sins as arrogance, falsehood, avarice and slander which escape the authority of human tribunals.” As a result, God Himself intervenes and dispenses justice by affecting the sinners’ body, possessions and home.

May we distance ourselves from negative personality traits and acts and thereby be spared from God’s modern substitutes for Tzaraat, which contrary to popular translations have nothing to do with leprosy!

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed and Dalia Stelzer for their hospitality and more.

Distant Proximity

Distant Proximity 

 He who created the speech of the lips, peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near, said God; and I will heal him. – Isaiah 57:19

BalloonsA fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of approaching God, of getting closer to God, of connecting to God. We often define these concepts in spatial terms.

In ancient days we approached the Temple in Jerusalem. The closer we were to that epicenter of religious life, the closer we were to God. In our own day, synagogue, ritual, the Torah and its many commandments have supplanted the Temple service, but nonetheless, we tend to think in spatial expressions and may think of ourselves or others as “closer” or “further” from God and divine service.

A person afflicted with the biblical condition of Tzaraat (an unusual skin discoloration) was exiled from the Israelite camp. The Sfat Emet in 5648 (1898) explains the counterintuitive phenomena of having to go “farther” to come “closer.” Many people see God and feel closer to God when they approach the “center” of religious worship, when they are involved in the details of the commandments, when they pray in the synagogue, when they study the Torah. However, for some, it doesn’t work. They are turned off by the rituals. They are bored by the traditions and inherited wisdom. They go away. They go into exile. They get as far away, physically and existentially from their heritage. And that’s when they discover it. At the farthest distance from Jewish communal life, in the solitude of strange and unusual cultural existence, they suddenly encounter God. Then they get an inkling as to the value of what their ancestors had. Then they feel the closeness of God, the connection to the infinite and divine that magically transcends the finite and the mortal.

May we all receive such moments of inspiration and connect to God, no matter how “far” or “close” we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Moses, for his integral role in taking us out of Egypt (and for so much more). He gets very little credit or mention in the Pesach Haggadah (on purpose…).

Some people never learn…

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/metzora-some-people-never-learn/ 

Netziv Leviticus: Metzora

Some people never learn…

“Obstinacy is will asserting itself without being able to justify itself. It is persistence without a reasonable motive. It is the tenacity of self-love substituted for that of reason and conscience.” -Henri Frederic Amiel

It is said that experience is the best teacher, but sometimes even that is not enough. There are times when actions and their consequences are so clear that it is only by a great force of will or delusion that the correct lessons are ignored.

The Torah dedicates a lot of ink to the malady known as tzaraat. There are three categories of tzaraat: afflictions upon the structure of ones house, afflictions upon ones clothing and affliction upon ones body. Tzaraat is generally attributed to gossip. Rabbinic commentators explain that if one gossips, God sends an initial warning by affecting ones house. The damage, minor as it may be, is meant to be an opportunity to deliberate as to the spiritual ills that lead to the physical harm.

If one gets the message, they clean up their act, fix their house and life goes on. However, the Netziv on Leviticus 14:44 explains, if one doesn’t get the message, if one doesn’t excise the spiritual illness from themselves, the tzaraat will return and with more force.

The second level that is affected, is ones clothing, ones personal possessions – much closer. The final level that is affected is ones body.

May we use the opportunities that damage and afflictions give us to contemplate our lives and areas for repair and improvement, especially regarding the great evil of gossip.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who are both careful with what they put in their mouths over Pesach as well as with what comes out of their mouths the whole year.

 

Holy Thumbs

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tazria-holy-thumbs/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Tazria-Metzora

Holy Thumbs

According to a decades-old study, 92% of infants suck their thumb. Besides all of the normal physiological reasons, I think I’ve stumbled upon another reason for a baby’s fascination and attachment to that particular finger.

In the Sanctuary (and later in the Temple) there is a ritual performed to purify a recovered “leper”, metzora in Hebrew, though leper is a poor but common translation of what is considered a spiritual ailment that displays itself physically upon the skin. Part of the ritual was to take the blood of a sacrificed sheep and place it on the right earlobe, right thumb and right big toe of the healed “leper”.

Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 14:14 wonders what’s so special about the thumb. He then goes on to explain that the thumb is none other than the nexus of the physical and the spiritual. The thumb (think opposable) is what allows man to convert his spiritual desires into concrete action. If it weren’t for our (opposable) thumbs, we would be hard pressed to make and wield tools, to write, to craft or to do most things that humans have developed over millennia.

A child sucking his thumb may be doing much more than seeking comfort and pleasure. He may very well be retaining his connection to the spiritual world, seeking the power of the nexus of body and soul, the most physical part of the body that differentiates man from other primates, the most important digit of the hand.

I will never look at a child sucking their thumb the same way again.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nieces and nephews of thumb-sucking age. May you always retain your connection to the spiritual.

Lord of the Doppelganger Flies

Kli Yakar Leviticus: Metzorah

Lord of the Doppelganger Flies

“If we were faultless we should not be so much annoyed by the defects of those with whom we associate.” -Francois FeNelon

Ever hear a piece of really juicy gossip? A man cheated on his wife? A business-man caught for financial wrongdoing? Or some other nonsensical tidbit of embarrassing or deprecatory trivia? Well, according to the Kli Yakar, there is a high likelihood that the purveyors of such gossip are themselves guilty of the very same crimes they are so eager to point out.

According to the Kli Yakar the gossiper is like a fly. A fly will scour the entire body of a person. The fly will inspect every inch of flesh and ignore the strong, whole, healthy skin. The fly will zoom in on any bit of exposed, unhealthy, putrid flesh. The fly will feast on the diseased part of the person.

The Kli Yakar adds an additional point. Such flies, such gossipers, are not only attracted to the bad in every person. They are attracted to those faults, those problems that mirror their own. They assume that others have the same faults and issues as they do and will gleefully point out that very fault in others.

So the next time that gossiper reveals the problems of others, take a step back, and consider whether it is a confession on their part instead.

May we keep our ears and mouths closed to gossip. We might catch a fly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of my dear, great-uncle David Spitz of Forest Hills, NY, who passed away this week. A great man who encompassed multiple traits, including generosity, kindness and a quick sense of humor. He survived the Holocaust and went on to thrive, building a family and seeing not only grandchildren, but many, many great-grandchildren as well. We will miss Uncle Dave.