On the face of it, the entire section of Parshiyot Tazriah-Metzorah, which deals with “metzora” – a group of mysterious ailments and how to recognize and treat them, seems bizarre and strikes us as a somewhat strange addition to what is ostensibly the “holy book” of the Jewish people. What do public health measures have to do with religion? As Jews, we recognize that the answer to this question is everything, but still, we are left perplexed. Clearly, we are clueless about what these diseases were and what role they played in biblical society.
Puzzlement did not preclude the rabbinic sages from formulating detailed laws in the Mishnah outlining the exact procedure for carrying out this divine legislation. On the other hand, it also did not prevent them from understanding the Torah’s descriptions as spiritual and moral maladies rather than exclusively physical ones in order to tease religious significance from the Torah’s medical legislation.
All of this raises a larger question. What is the Jewish religious tradition’s “remedy” for reading and deriving meaning from such passages in the Torah and in our other religious literature when their pshat or plain meaning does not mesh with our sense of reality? This is not a new question. Even the Jewish tradition’s sages, for whom we have no doubt as to their loyalty to the Torah, found themselves, at times, searching for deeper meaning and relevance in the text beyond what can be found in its plain meaning. In other words, sometimes the text called for different sorts of reading strategies in order to turn what might have seemed obscure into a vehicle for exploring otherwise hidden truths.
Before turning back to the text, it is worth noting that the revelation of the Torah involved two parties, God and God’s people. Both parties were and are active participants in the process, the listener no less than the Divine teacher because the listener is charged with understanding the revelation and this is no passive role! Consequently, the meaning of the text is not limited to its plain meaning and “loyal” interpretation is also to be considered part and parcel of God’s divine message.
As an example, our parasha outlines a variety of possible skin ailments:
Should a person have on the skin of his body an inflammation (se’at) or a rash (sepahat) or a shiny spot (baheret) and it becomes the affliction of skin blanch (metzorah) on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aharon the priest or to one of his sons the priests… (Leviticus 13:2)
This sentence presents a number of questions. First of all, we cannot identify each of the ailments but we must assume that each one is different. In additon, like any medical issue, just talking about them cause anxiety like so many other things which make us feel insecure and vulnerable. Finally, on an existential level, we wonder about the relevance of these ailments since they are not part of our reality.
The following midrash tries to tackle these questions by reading this verse metaphorically. Instead of seeing it as contending with medical issues, it uses it to describe another issue contentious Jewish question – themJewish nation’s history of oppression and its longing for its ultimate redemption at the hand of God:
The Torah is speaking of the kingdoms [which have oppressed the nation] – The inflammation (se’at) represents Babylon, since it is stated (Isaiah 14:4): “And you shall take up (v’nasata) this song of scorn against the king of Babylon….” The rash (sepahat) represents Media, because Haman conspired (m’sapeah) with Ahasuerus (Esther 3:18): “to devastate, kill, and destroy.” The shiny spot (baheret) represents the Greek empire, because it “lorded” it (mavheret) over Israel and said, “Whoever has an ox, let him write on the horns of the ox that he has no share in the God of Israel.” And if [they did] not [do so], they would sentence them to death. The plague of leprosy (tzaraat) represents the empire of Edom (Rome), because the Holy One, blessed be He, afflicted it and its guarding angel with leprosy (tzaraat), as stated (Jeremiah 46:15): “Why have your heroes been washed away (nishaf – a synonym for tzarrat)? Because the Lord has pushed him away.” [here this verse is midrashically understood to refer to the Romans.] (Adapted from Tanhuma Tazriah 11)
This midrash, through a series of wordplays has transformed a verse which deals with a biblical malady into a message of hope built upon a history of despair. One by one, the nations that oppressed Israel were overcome and disappeared, all of this symbolically represented in the above cited verse. One cannot help but think that these strange metaphoric association both amused and inspired the listener or reader to hang on just a little longer in troubled times, to live another day and to continue to pray and work for better times. This is a reminder that we, too, must do the same.