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Torah Commentary
M'tzora (April 5, 2014)

Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

WITH 7 INCHES OF SNOW having fallen overnight and dawn a few hours away, parents and children (alike) wait for the Mayor’s announcement. Would the coming day be a “snow day”? Before the official pronouncement, there is always endless speculation. Yes, there is snow… but is there “enough” snow to make it worthwhile? Ask any child and his or her opinion always favors a day of sledding fun. Parents who have to juggle work and childcare aren’t as easily convinced. But no matter what either party thinks, the day isn’t “called” until the Mayor declares it so!

That act of pronouncement came to mind as I read M’tzora, the parashah which identifies and details instances of impurity and their corresponding ceremonies of purification.

The same kind of bright line — where a declaration creates a “before and after” — can be found in a marriage ceremony or in times of illness and health. A couple that is ready to stand under the chupah already is devoted to each other; the clergy’s pronouncement only formalizes it. When a patient receives a diagnosis for an illness, she or he already has been sick for some time. Hearing it from a doctor can make it seem official. The reverse, in regaining health, is true as well.

So, when the Torah calls our attention to a house affected by impurity, we also learn the limits placed on layman’s expertise. The Torah is quite specific. One who lives in an “afflicted” house may only conjecture about the extent of his or her difficulties. Until the impurity is confirmed, the house and its contents are unrestricted, and those who live there remain free to interact without any concern. Rashi notes: “Even if he (the inhabitant) is smart enough to know that it is definitely a plague, he may not pronounce it so.”

It sounds strange to us because we are accustomed to being in control of our lives and taking responsibility for ourselves. Perhaps the prescribed uncertainty stems from the recent lesson of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons who were priests in training. All we know, as readers, is that “they offered before the Lord alien fire (aish zarah), which was not enjoined upon them,” and both of them subsequently died. (Leviticus 10:1) Over the years many commentators have conjectured that the young priests acted in a way that was inappropriate or beyond their abilities. But for the community living during that time, Nadav and Abihu’s punishment was more real than abstract. So, it makes sense that one who was suffering with an affected house would be fearful to venture more than a guess when he or she summoned the priest.

Only one verse later the Torah provides a different reason for the required uncertainty. It teaches: Before the priest enters the affected home to make a pronouncement, everything must be removed so that nothing in the house shall become unclean (read as: permissible or impermissible for use). (Leviticus 14:36) Should the house be declared unfit, the owner is spared unnecessary property loss. However, once the declaration is made, whatever still is within that home is covered by the blanket decree! No matter the ruling, the priest’s pronouncement makes it official.

What we really see in this carefully organized ritual is compassion in action. That is a lesson worth remembering! How easy it is to be lost in the minute details, forgetting that the ultimate goal is to enable people to remain in the community — or be restored to the community — as productive members.

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