Parshat Mitzorah: Sharing blame, the Father must initiate reconciliation
Parents and children are often estranged from one another, if only for a spell. Sons rebel against their fathers, who in turn may cut their child off from both love and lucre. Our instinct is to sympathize with the parents, and to blame children who have the temerity to kick the shins of those who brought them into this world and weathered the costs, challenges and heartbreaks of raising them.
What does this have to do with Parshat Mitzora? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. This parsha, like the preceding one, deals with issues of ritual impurity and purification.
Conventional wisdom has it that the ritual impurity of the ‘mitzora’ (one suffering from tzaraat, a skin disease caused by spiritual malfeasance) is his or her fault. It is a punishment for the sin of lashon hara, gossip. Hence the full responsibility falls on the mitzora who must then endure temporary exile, quarantine, purification, homelessness, and further ritual purification before returning to normal life. And yet, the Torah may be allowing for a bit of shared responsibility, implying that the mitzora’s suffering is not entirely his or her fault. That perhaps G-d – if only by being the creator of human nature – may share some of the guilt for which the mitzora endures the brunt of punishment.
Let us look at the opening three verses of Leviticus 14:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
זֹ֤את תִּֽהְיֶה֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת הַמְּצֹרָ֔ע בְּי֖וֹם טָֽהֳרָת֑וֹ וְהוּבָ֖א אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן
וְיָצָא֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֶל־מִח֖וּץ לַמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה וְרָאָה֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְהִנֵּ֛ה נִרְפָּ֥א נֶֽגַע־הַצָּרַ֖עַת מִן־הַצָּרֽוּעַ
The conventional translation is: And the Lord spoke to Moses saying(1) This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzaraat on the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the kohen(2). The kohen shall go out of the camp, and the kohen will look and behold the lesion of the tzaraat has healed in the afflicted person (3).
Now we know that the afflicted individual is banished and quarantined outside the camp, and may not re-enter until he is declared (partially) purified by the priest. How then does he get “brought” to the kohen who is inside the camp? And does it make any sense that he first comes to the kohen and only then the kohen goes out out of the camp to examine him? Why not just examine him then and there? And once again, as in the previous parsha, the verb form used for “and he shall be brought” – והובא – is the ni’fal, passive conjugation. Why does it not say “v’yavo” ויבוא – and he shall come? May I suggest that the word “v’huva” does not mean “he shall be brought” – as this would make no sense at all – but rather it means that information shall be brought to the kohen informing him that the mitzora has healed. Now it makes perfect sense that the kohen should exit the camp in order to initiate the purification process.
However there is something much more intriguing at play here. After all, the kohen is acting as G-d’s proxy in putting closure to this episode. And, yet, it is he who must go out to the mitzora and not the other way around. The Torah structures things in such a way that there is no recourse but for the priest to take the initiative of picking himself up and going to the afflicted individual rather than the afflicted individual appearing before the priest pleading for re-admission to the camp and the community.
Can it be that what we are seeing here is indeed an acknowledgment that the afflicted individual is not entirely to blame?
Let us take a look at the haftarah for this Shabbat, a haftarah which is recited for Shabbat HaGadol and which, unlike most hafatarot is not specifically linked to the weekly Torah reading. The haftarah which is taken from Malachi 3 is rich with immortal phrases that have earned permanent places in Jewish liturgy.
כג הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם הֲ’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא:
כד וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב-אָבוֹת֙ עַל-בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל-אֲבוֹתָ֑ם
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.4:24 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children,and the heart of the children to their fathers;
Speaking of the ultimate messianic redemption of a sinful and debased Jewish People, the prophet makes it clear that the first step toward rapprochement will be taken by G-d, not by the people. G-d will first send Elijah the Prophet. This in turn will result in something else that is counterintuitive; namely that the fathers will take the first step in the rapprochement with their rebellious offspring. Only then will the children reconcile with their fathers.
There is an incredible lesson to be learned here: That fathers – and first and foremost G-d the Father – are, at the very least, not entirely blameless. That there is something inherent in the nature of a father-child relationship that is pregnant with the seeds of rebellion; And that the best, if not only, way to effect reconciliation is when the father takes the first step.
Back to our parsha: The kohen, representing G-d, must go out to the mitzorah to initiate his return to the community, just as G-d, the Father, must ultimately send Elijah to initiate the spiritual return of the Children of Israel. Human fathers must first turn their hearts to their rebellious offspring. Only then will the rebellious children turn their hearts back to their fathers.