Yoseif Bloch

And a leper shall lead them

The Torah is known as the Five Books of Moses, and with good reason. The most common verse is “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,” which appears seventy times in the Torah (specifically, in three of the five), introducing mitzvot. But Moses is not the only one to be tagged, as we read a few weeks ago, “And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying” (Lev. 10:8).

In that passage, God explains that Aaron and his sons have a special job in assisting Moses–not just Temple service, but le-horot, to guide, teach, instruct and issue rulings for the Israelites, “in order to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, and between the impure and the pure.” Le-horot is the infinitive of Torah, and the text goes on to list a half-dozen torot, rules of purity and impurity as they relate to all stages of life and all living creatures. In each case, the passage is introduced with “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying”–with two exceptions.

As my friend Hillel Deutsch asked last week on Facebook, “The yoledet, however, is introduced via command to Moshe only. (Vayikra 12:1) Why?” The laws of the yoledet, the child-bearer, are indeed addressed only to Moses, which is strange. After all, the new mother is supposed to bring an offering and present it to the priest; Aaron and his sons are part of her purification process.

Even more bizarre is the beginning (Lev. 14:1) of this week’s portion, Metzora, which details the purification process of the leper, in which nearly every action is taken by the priest. This too is addressed to Moses only, even though Aaron is cc’ed on the process for declaring a person to be a metzora in the first place. Why should he be excluded here?

Also on Facebook, Yosef Weiner suggested: “Some kind of reference/reprimand to him after the whole not-giving-his-son-a-brit story?” In other words, perhaps Moses is excluded in the first instance because the passage of the child-bearer includes the positive command of circumcision, “And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised.” This is a brief restatement of the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 17, which Moses famously ignores on his way down to Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26).

At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.

Thus, there is a reason for Moses to receive the passage of the yoledet alone; he has unique experience with the consequences of ignoring the covenant, and this is no time to hide behind his brother.

But what about metzora? What personal experience does Moses have with that? Actually, it’s in the same chapter (vv. 5-7):

Said the Lord, “So that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous as snow. “Now put it back into your cloak,” He said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 2:1) famously expounds that the torah of the metzora (Lev. 14:2)  is the torah of the motzi shem ra, the slanderer. In fact, Moses’ leprous episode is very similar to that of his older sister Miriam in Num. 12. Both express doubt about the trustworthiness of God’s chosen, both incur God’s wrath, both become “leprous as snow,” and in both cases Aaron’s advocacy saves them. But not before a seven-day quarantine session, as required for the metzora: Miriam’s quarantine is explicit in the verse, but Moses’ is explicit only in the Midrash, which states that he spends an entire week at Horeb, by the Burning Bush (Lev. Rabba, Shemini 11). In any case, it is clear why Moses receives the passage of purifying the metzora alone; he is the one familiar with this punishment for evil speech.

Is there any lesson in all this for us? I would like to suggest that the message is actually quite profound. If there’s anyone who could claim diplomatic immunity, it’s Moses, who is literally on a mission from God. Liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt is sort of a big deal, as I understand. Yet God takes the time to take Moses to task for two personal mistakes and puts the Exodus on hold. Why? Because if Moses can’t put his own house in order before assuming the leadership of Israel, there is really no point to his mission.

It’s quite a contrast to the news of the week: one former mayor of Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been convicted of bribery, along with his predecessor, who ascended to the office of Prime Minister of Israel. These are two very different men, but they clearly shared a belief that they were above the law. One can’t help but think of Isaiah’s words (1:23): “Your rulers are faithless, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows.” That’s not the Mosaic model. God doesn’t give a free pass to the leaders; He demands that they follow the laws they’re handing down to everyone else.

There is some comfort, though. (We don’t call them isaiads, after all.) Isaiah, himself of royal blood (Megilla 15a) goes on to promise in the name of God: “Then I will give you good judges again and wise counselors like you used to have. Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice and the Faithful City.” It can’t come soon enough.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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