Parshat Metzora: Ritual as Life-and-Death Theater

As if Parshat Tazria’s details were not strange enough, Parshat Metzora opens with an even stranger continuation of the journey of the individual afflcited with tzaraat (“skin affliction”):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean.

Reading these texts, the later rabbinic sages of Talmudic and midrashic literature imputed moral and spiritual explanations to the tzaraat disease, its symptoms and its treatments.  Confronting such a dense, detailed, bizarre and pragmatically irrelevant instruction manual as this one, we don’t wonder why they spent so much energy reinterpreting these complex ritual rules homiletically.  The afflicted person and his disease became symbols for the spiritual disease of slander and gossip and its consequences;  the priest went from being a ritual functionary to being a proto-physician/holy man armed with tools for detecting not only medical diseases but spiritual disorders; the scaly and moldy afflictions of body, clothing and house became moral exempla concerning the social and ethical ills that sicken the individual and the community from within and from without.  The Rabbis did this simultaneously with their intensive studies of Jewish laws concerning tzaraat, even though by their era, the holy temple no longer stood, the priesthood no longer functioned, and these rituals no longer applied.

Admittedly, these Torah portions about tzaraat are not the most immediately uplifting.  For many people, they fall under the category of the three D’s:  disgusting, difficult, and dull.  Yet, I caution you not to dismiss them as meaningless vestiges of our ancestors’ prescientific times to be pushed aside in favor of science and rational explorations of nature.

Modern Bible scholars assert that, for the most part but not exclusively, our biblical ancestors did not understand the skin afflictions and mold streaks they and their possessions suffered to be symptoms of God’s punishment and displeasure.  Mold and skin eruptions were seen as part of the normal processes of mortality and death, the break-down of the life force in the body and the environment.  Each of the quarantine procedures and purifying rituals sought to restore the sufferer and the environment to a place of life, in the process maintaining God’s presence – the purest flow of absolute life – within the community.  Our ancestors likely had only the most primitive notions of disease process; though folk herbal medications had probably been around for quite some time before the Bible, people of ancient times were mostly in the dark about illness and its prevention, with only the crudest methods of trial and error to guide them in treatments.  Yet, their rules concerning tzaraat seem to indicate that they possessed very deep insights about life, death, and the psychology of dealing with mortality.  How so?

A disorder like tzaraat isn’t death itself, but a hint of death in the midst of our daily business of living.  Like any hint of death and mortality, this one terrifies people.  I invite you to imagine the tzaraat rituals as a kind of theater in which the sufferer and the community project their fear bewilderment about death onto the stage of an elaborate drama:  the one suffering becomes ill, necessitating an examination of his affliction:  is it minor enough that this person can return literally to the land of the living?  Or is it major enough that he must be removed from the community?  If the latter, then the sufferer goes into isolation – a symbol of death – and doesn’t return to the community and the land of the living until he is declared fit for reentry.   At that point of reentry, he is completely cleansed with water, a life substance, and a full shaving of the body, something that is not done during periods of mourning a death.  He’s then purified using cedar wood, hyssop, and animal blood, all the things that were used for purification from contact with death in the ancient world. (Conisder parallels between these rituals and the red heifer ritual for cleansing someone contaminated by contact with a dead body:  Numbers 19.)

This drama of “close encounters with death” that the Torah describes invites the sick person not to ignore, succumb to, or be terrified by this hint of mortality, but to confront it, symbolically and literally, in his body and within his community:  to see it for what it is, even to the point of imagining no longer being among the living during his time in isolation.  Assuming he heals, the Torah then invites him to re-join the community of the living through a ritual of symbolic purification that celebrates life without pretending that death is not real.  Most important is that this person’s journey never happens in actual isolation; God and the community, represented by the constant presence of the attending priest, are always with him, before, during, and after his isolation.  The Hebrew word kohein, priest, is mentioned fifty-one times in chapter 13 and chapter 14 of Leviticus for good reason:  God’s most intimate human agent, apart from Moses himself, is given the task of actively attending to this one diseased and marginalized human being who is afflicted.

Thus, we see that when we cut through the tangled branches of these complex ancient rituals we are actually being given a tremendous gift in the form of a powerful model for true spiritual and moral life. The drama of each person’s existence is loosely scripted in the following way. Under normal circumstances, our being alive is of necessity accompanied by our awareness that we are alive.  But this awareness is not sufficient for us to feel fully alive: for that, we need community, people with whom we are connected in bonds of mutual concern and commitment.  Illness and other times of crisis, particularly those that force us to confront our mortality, threaten us with a deep awareness of how lonely we can become. We are forced to ask, “Will people care for me and love me or callously abandon or forget me, allowing me to die and to die alone?”  The Torah commands the community to promise the afflicted person: “No matter how ill and isolated you become or feel, no one will abandon you on this journey. You will never suffer and come through this ordeal alone.  We – God, the leadership, the community – are with you.”  Through its rituals, prayers, social and interpersonal ethics, its very emphasis on the experience of holiness in community, Judaism constantly reenacts this personal and communal drama at every step and misstep of every person’s journey.  How lucky we Jews are to be actors on its majestic stage.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.