Five Rashis, Metsora: Lost Worlds and the Loss Involved

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

As readers know, this project of reviewing five Rashis a week is in memory of a good friend. As I write this installment, the Jewish world is absorbing the passing of mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l; I am writing this quickly, so as to be able to send it out before I go to Israel for the funeral, and it is written in the burdened state of sadness that cannot but overwhelm anyone who knew R. Lichtenstein, know what an oved Hashem has been taken from us. Yehi zichro baruch.

The Social Exclusion of the Metsora

The Jews in the desert were in three encampments, the Mishkan encampment, the Levites encampment, and the rest of the people’s camp. As Rashi reminds us, 14;3, tradition understood the metsora’s need to stay “outside the camp” to mean that, alone of all the forms of ritual impurity, the metsora is required to leave all three. (The parallel when we had a Beit haMikdash was the courtyard of the Temple, the Temple Mount, and the city of Jerusalem).

In the next verse, on the word טהורות, Rashi attributes the requirement to use birds as part of the closing ceremony of the metsora to the fact that tsara’at comes for telling lashon hara, for speaking ill of others.  The afflicted person spoke too much (and wrongly), like birds’ chatter. Bringing the birds reminds the metsora to refrain from such chatter in the future.

In this version, the socially damaging act of slander leads to being separated from society. Confusing matters, Erechin 16a lists seven sins that can bring tsara’at, and the next Rashi we’ll see operates under the assumption that another sin shaped this ceremony, too.

Arrogance and Tsara’at

In addition to the birds, that verse tells the metsora to bring עץ ארז, cedar (a very tall tree—Wikipedia says up to 130 feet tall), שני תולעת, a scarlet-dyed thread. Rounding out the items to be used is an אזוב, a hyssop.

Rashi (on the words ועץ ארז and ושני תולעת) says that since גסות הרוח, arrogance, brings tsara’at, the metsora brings these as a reminder—the cedar symbolizes the haughtiness that led to the tsara’at, and the תולעת (a worm, a play on the word used for the scarlet thread) and hyssop (a low plant, classified perhaps as a subshrub, because it also hugs the ground in its growth) will reflect the need to avoid self-aggrandizement, to remember to be humble (not just act humbly).

Rashi’s explicit point is that the ceremony the Torah mandates for the end of tsara’at wasn’t a random concatenation of items and actions, it was a reflection on what happened, and why, and a warning of how to act for the future such that it won’t be repeated.

What Rashi doesn’t address, but is implicit in these comments, is that there can be more than one reason for tsara’at, which means a person can also fail to understand why the tsara’at came to him or her. Whenever there’s more than one possibility, there’s also the possibility of denial—there’s no guarantee that the same lashon hara, spoken by two different people, will get the same Divine reaction, and people of arrogance often don’t realize they’re arrogant.

Part of the challenge of tsara’at, Rashi seems to me to remind us, is being open to seeing why it might have come, repenting of that, and taking that on for the future. Could be lashon hara, could be arrogance, could be both. It’s all there in the closing ceremony, because tsara’at can always come back.

The Good Side to Tsara’at

To muddy the waters more, Rashi to 14;34 offers the traditional view that some tsara’at, which we would experience as a trouble and a pain, is a blessing. For house-tsara’at, Rashi notes that Hashem speaks of ונתתי נגע צרעת, giving a tsara’at in a house. Tthe ordinarily positive connotations of giving suggest that house tsara’at could, in some instances, be a gift: the Emorites used to bury their gold in the walls of their houses (for safekeeping), and the tsara’at, which leads to tearing out the afflicted stones, will help the Jews find that gold.

Rashi doesn’t say or imply that every house-tsara’at is for that purpose, and other sources speak of house tsara’at similarly to other versions of tsara’at. But it does mean that some house tsara’at might be for more positive reasons than we would imagine and, if we broaden that, that some life-challenges, painful or distressing as they are at the time, are in fact Hashem’s ways of bringing us to a better future.

Tsara’at becomes a good example of where even Hashem’s supernatural involvement in our lives is not as clear and unequivocal as we might like. When we feel Hashem’s involvement, we will nonetheless need to understand whether it’s directing us towards riches we would not otherwise have found, calling us to recognize failings in ourselves, or both. At least for tsara’at.

Declaring Tsara’at

In verses 35 and 36, on the words כנגע and בטרם, the Torah signals its insistence that only a kohen declares tsara’at. In the first case, the person afflicted by house-tsara’at asks the kohen to check it out by saying כנגע נראה לי, “like” a lesion appeared to me in the house. Rashi says that that applies even to a Torah scholar, who should not speak categorically about the lesion. In the next verse, where the furnishings are removed before the kohen arrives, Rashi tells us that that’s because the house isn’t טמא, ritually impure, until the kohen declares the lesion to be tsara’at.

It’s been said often, but bears repeating, that tsara’at is not a purely physical phenomenon. It does not matter that the Torah scholar is qualified to be certain that the kohen is going to say it is (elsewhere, tradition tells us an ignorant kohen can identify tsara’at based on a Torah scholar’s assuring him it is). Nor is it tsara’at, for ritual impurity purposes, until the kohen calls it such.

It is an instance of pure formal legalism—what we might be tempted to treat as a physical matter (or a medical matter, for body tsara’at, or a materials matter, for clothing tsara’at) is in fact not that, since any of those would be treated in natural ways. Tsara’at is from Hashem, and the only way to effectively react to it is in the ways laid out by Hashem.

An Example of Lost Sensitivity to Body Rhythms

15;25 brings up a zavah, a woman whose bleeding renders her ritually impure until she has been free of that for seven days, and then must offer sacrifices in addition to going to mikveh in order to be able to return to going to the Beit haMikdash and/or partake of sacrificial meat. To become such a zavah gedolah, the woman would have had to see blood on three consecutive days (if she saw on only one or two days, she would have a lower level zivah status) when it wasn’t her ordinary time to do so (Rabbinic tradition assumed an eleven day window for zivah, with some debate as to how that worked. Most authorities, including Rashi, thought there was one eleven-day zivah period each menstrual cycle when seeing blood would render her a zavah).

Today (and since the time of the Gemara), observant women treat any bleeding as zivah gedolah, erasing from our lived experience the Biblical categories of niddah (who could go to mikveh as long as her bleeding stopped by the end of the seventh day) and lower levels of zivah. When we return to a Beit HaMikdash, we’ll certainly have to revisit that, since we won’t require women to bring the requisite zivah sacrifices each month.

For now, Rashi reminds us that in the name of halachic care (the Gemara says Jewish women were concerned that they would mix up one kind of bleeding with another), the Jewish community blurred and suppressed categories that gave more nuance to our experience of ourselves and our bodies than currently.

Part of what makes Tazria and Metsora difficult portions is that they deal with laws that we haven’t had around for a long time. This last example reminds us that the loss of such laws is not only theoretical (if only we lived it, we’d appreciate purity and impurity, and what it does to enhance our spiritual growth…), but a real one, with ramifications for us here and now. In the instances we saw this time, our appreciation of Hashem’s impact on our lives, both disciplinary and beneficent, and in our sensitivity to how our bodies work.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
Related Topics
Related Posts