Parshat Tazria by Rav Reuven Tradburks
The next 2 parshiot, Tazria and Metzora are challenging. Their theme is simple: entry to the Mikdash is restricted for those who are Tamei. There are a number of situations that render a person Tamei. The removal of the Tuma status allows re-entry to the Mikdash. Who becomes Tamei and how the Tuma is removed is outlined.
The idea that entry to the holiest place should have special rules makes sense. The challenge lies in why these specific people cannot enter. And more specifically, why a person with tzarat, a kind of leprosy, should be restricted. But let’s at least try to offer some approach to understanding why these people become Tamei. And why they are restricted from entering the Mikdash.
I will propose an approach and attempt to trace it through the aliyot. I think this approach has merit; though not at all sure this is the Torah’s intent.
The Mikdash is the place of the rendezvous of man and G-d. The notion of finite man encountering the Infinite is frightening and humbling. But it is also grand. If He is inviting us to meet Him in His Home – well, He must think of us as worthy to meet. Wow. Man is His worthy partner. For Man is created in His Image. Man is majestic. Noble. Elevated. Distinguished. Unique. G-d invites majestic, noble man to His home, the Mikdash.
However, while He thinks of us as majestic, life sometimes causes us to feel less than majestic. Circumstances can cause us to lose a sense of our nobility. We can feel ordinary and not elevated, rather pedestrian. And in particular, in those things that we share with animals: food, procreation, illness, death. When confronted with our limitations, the physicality we share with animals, our mortality, we can lose the nobility of our station. We can feel like glorious animals.
That may be the meaning of tuma. The tuma in our parsha is what is called tuma whose source is our own body: childbirth, Tzarat (loosely translated as leprosy), and emissions from procreative organs. These very earthy parts of our being can damage our sense of nobility, making us feel closer to animals than to angels. Man in his nobility is invited to approach G-d: man when doubting his nobility needs to be restored before approaching G-d. The Tamei person is one with bruised nobility. The process of becoming Tahor is the process of reclaiming our nobility. Human nobility is required to rendezvous with the Divine in His home.
1st aliya (Vayikra 12:1-13:5) Childbirth renders a woman tamei (tmeya). A male child is circumcised at 8 days. At the end of the tuma, 40 days for a male, 80 days for female child, the new mother immerses and brings an offering of an olah and a chatat. She may then enter the Mikdash. Tzarat: a patch of white skin may be tzarat. A Cohen examines it to see if it is the requisite white and if the hairs on that skin are white. If so, the person is declared a Metzorah. If the signs are not the requisite, the person is quarantined for a week. The quarantine can be extended a second week.
Childbirth is joyous. Yet, the woman becomes tmeya, restricting her entry to the Mikdash. Along the theme mentioned above, experiences that we share with animals may damage our sense of the nobility of being human. Childbirth, though wonderful, is earthy. The wonder of birth may be overshadowed by oppressive feelings of the physicality of birth and the early stage of child-care. To recapture the higher nobility of motherhood, the woman brings offerings, as a reboot, a reaffirmation of the higher calling of creating this new life.
2nd aliya (13:6-17) The Cohen examines the skin following the 2 weeks of quarantine, and if it has not spread, the person is able to immerse and become tahor. If it spread, the tuma continues. If the white patch on the skin, with white hair, has healthy skin in its midst, it is tamei. If it covers the entire body, he is tahor. When healthy skin returns, he is tamei. The Cohen declares the tamei or tahor status of the tzarat.
Tzarat has many details. It appears as unusual colorations of the skin. The skin is the visible part of our bodies. In fact, if the tzarat skin discoloration is on a part of the body that the Cohen is unable to see, it is not tzarat. It needs to be visible. One with Tzarat would be self conscious, the Tzarat being somewhat embarrassing. One manner in which mankind is distinct from animals is in our social nature. Being self conscious of our appearance would injure our social nature. This damage to our sense of nobility also demands a reboot in the form of a ceremony at the conclusion of the Tzarat, outlined in next week’s parsha.
3rd aliya (13:18-23) Tzarat of white skin with white hairs that appears in skin recovering from a wound is tamei. If the Cohen does not find the requisite color or hair, the person is quarantined for 7 days. If it spreads, he is tamei. If not, he is tahor.
All the details of tzarat are contained in one long chapter. However the aliya breaks are deliberate. Aliyot 2, 3, 4, and 5 all end on verses declaring the person tahor.
If we have an opportunity to be positive, let’s land on that, not a verse that declares the person tamei. Interesting that we often do the opposite: we will compliment a person and then launch into criticism. How about the reverse: the last thing said should be the positive, the compliments. Never land on the tamei; only the tahor.
4th aliya (13:24-28) Tzarat can also be found on skin that suffered a burn. The Cohen assesses the nature of the discoloration determining whether it requires 7-day quarantine and reassessment to determine if tamei or tahor.
5th aliya (13:29-39) Tzarat can also appear on the head or beard, with hair loss and skin discoloration. The Cohen assesses the spread of the discoloration to determine if it requires quarantine and if it is tamei.
6th aliya (13:40-54) When a person is declared to have Tzarat, he rends his garments, lets his hair grow, covers himself to his lips and dwells outside of the camp. Garments displaying specific discoloration are deemed to have garment Tzarat. The Cohen assesses the color and shape, quarantining if necessary.
After the detailed description of when a person has Tzarat and when not, the consequence of Tzarat is described. The person acts as a mourner would act: garment torn, hair grows, covered head (a practice we no longer generally observe as mourners). But more dramatically: he is sequestered out of the populated area.
This isolation prompts the midrashic comment that Tzarat is for lashon hara – the punishment fits the transgression. If you can’t treat people respectfully, then spend some time alone.
Or, in line with my approach outlined above: proximity to G-d demands that we display the nobility of man. Tzarat, an embarrassing discoloration that makes us feel self conscious, diminishes our sense of self. Isolation allows us to reflect on our self worth. Self worth has nothing to do with how we look to others, whether our skin looks good or whether our dress looks fine. Self worth is intrinsic; we have self worth simply because we are created in the image of G-d.
7th aliya (13:55-59) If determined to have Tzarat, the garment is burned. The regulations of tuma of garments is completed.
Clothing too is uniquely human. Animals do not wear clothes. Clothing is an expression of human dignity. The tumah of a garment restricts the wearer from entry to the Mikdash; human dignity is diminished by this oddly blemished garment.
The theory we offered in this parsha is that tuma and tahara restrict people from entering the Mikdash, as they are moments when human dignity and uniqueness are sullied. G-d invites majestic man of dignity to the Mikdash. While we share aspects of life with animals – food, procreation, illness and death – we are oh so much more glorious than animals. And the uniqueness of man is displayed in the fullness of his social interactions and in the dignity of his clothing, both absent from the animal world (the social nature of some animals does not reach the richness of human society with its communication and robust and sophisticated structure of cities, business and education). The majesty of the invitation to man to rendezvous with G-d in the Mikdash demands the fullest dignity and majesty of man. When that dignity is bruised by confrontation with our earthy, animal nature, or by injury to the dignity of our uniqueness in society and clothing, we need to reaffirm our majesty through purification and offerings. That perhaps can give meaning to the laws of tuma and tahara.
About the Author:
Rav Reuven Tradburks is the director of Machon Milton, the English Preparatory Course for Conversion, an association of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Shavei Israel. In addition, he is the director of the RCA-Region Israel. Prior to his aliyah, Rav Tradburks served 10 years as the Director of the Toronto Vaad Harabonim Conversion Court and as a congregational rabbi in Toronto and the United States.