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Torah Commentary
Tazria (April 13, 2013)

Sherry Nehmer,


THE VERY FIRST phone call I received from a parent regarding scheduling a bar/bat mitzvah service began with these words: “I just want to make sure my child doesn’t have to chant about leprosy. I had that Torah portion for my bat mitzvah, and it’s HORRIBLE!”

Putting aside the encouraging fact that here was a mother who actually had knowledge of the Torah and opinions about it, the basic reason for her concern was this week’s double portion, Tazria-M’tzora, or as we usually think of it, “That stuff about leprosy and bodily discharges.” No wonder this parent was concerned, because, well, yucchh.

You gotta love this part of Leviticus; in some chapters of it we read on and on about priestly garments or the appropriate way to build a fire or the parts of a calf to offer up for sacrifice — verse after verse of minute details. But in these two chapters — wow. Bloody discharges. Contagion. Semen. Female impurity after childbirth (and the fact a woman is impure longer if she gives birth to a girl — I mean, really?). And then of course, all those bits about skin diseases, which usually are interpreted as leprosy. On and on the portion goes, delineating how to deal with a wide variety of impurities, in all their scaly glory.

Tazria-M’tzora informed not only the laws of the time it was written but set the guidelines for thousands of years of shunning and the treatment of lepers. In Europe during the Middle Ages, leprosy sufferers had to wear special clothing, ring bells to warn others that they were close, and even walk on a particular side of the road, depending on the direction of the wind. Even in modern times, leprosy treatment often has occurred in separate hospitals and live-in colonies called leprosariums because of the stigma of the disease. Leprosy has been so prevalent in various areas at certain times throughout history that is has inspired artwork and influenced other cultural practices. Today there are still more than a hundred active leper colonies in India. Laws in parts of India prohibit lepers from running in local elections! We may think of this as an ancient disease, but it is still among us, although the truth is that leprosy is very hard to contract from another person, and it is curable.

But Tazria-M’tzora is not really about leprosy.

Sure, there are passages about each condition, from non-bloody emissions to scaly patches that turn the hair white, and about how a priest should anoint or care for the sick in order to heal them. There are verses about isolating the sick for the betterment of the community at large. And there are bits that we find hard to understand in this modern age about how people become “unclean” and how waiting a period of days will make them clean again. But the true meaning, I think, is found in a short verse near the end of M’tzora, Leviticus 15:31: “You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling my Tabernacle which is among them.”

Whatever your ailment or disease — and today we may see that as an uncleanliness of spirit or thought, or pain that obscures our better intentions and causes us to do harm to others — be on guard against it, and don’t bring it before God. And don’t bring it to the community, either. Negativity, gossip, cruelty — whatever the impurity, your uncleanliness of spirit can infect others. So make sure, if you’re not ready to experience prayer or participate in the community, that you examine yourself and free yourself of negative behavior and intentions before you engage. Then, and only then, will you be ready to rejoin society. It’s as plain as the nose (not) on your face.*

* Catchy phrase courtesy of congregant Wendl Kornfeld, a member of our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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