Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Life is messy. Really messy. Last week in Tazria, we took an excruciatingly detailed look at some of the mess. This week, in Metzorah, the fun continues, only this time the focus is on how we can respond.
Cleaning up the mess (specifically various forms of ritual impurity as expressed through skin disease, house mold or bodily discharges) falls under the purview of the priests. While we no longer follow the detailed instructions for the priestly purification rituals in our lives today, there is still much we can learn from these portions – if we pay attention to the details.
For example, five times in our portion (once in regard to household discolorations and four times in regard to bodily discharges) the text specifies that the ritual impurity lasts only until nightfall (Lev. 14:46, 15:6, 8, 10 and 11).
It may not seem like it, but there is some gold buried in these verses. On the surface, these two portions feel ‘clinical’ in a medical sense – symptoms are described and treatments are ordered. However, there is no way that the onset of evening could possibly have any impact on a medical condition, or household molds the way we understand them. Even more, the text specifies that the problem is one of tumah of ritual impurity, not of illness or disease. So what we are dealing here is spiritual in nature, not merely physical. The most commonly held interpretation comes from Maimonides, who played with the vocabulary of the portion to connect the metzorah, the person afflicted with the ‘spiritual-skin-malady’ with the act of motzi shem ra – of slander. The physical deformations were a manifestation of the spiritual damage done by the act of slander, and healing required both a quarantine and priestly ritual to repair the damage and reintegrate the sinner back into the community.
The references to the evening purification add another layer of meaning. The Talmud teaches that there are two kinds of purity in operation here: tahar gavra (the purity of the man) and tahar yoma (the purity of the [new] day). (Berachot 2a-b) If we understand the maladies of Tazria and Metzorah to be the spiritual result of our wrongdoing, then the only way back to a state of purity is by going through a process of teshuvah, of regretting, correcting and changing our behavior. Perhaps tahar gavra is about our own internal process of teshuvah, and about our attempts to make amends. However, the day or days in which we have not completed that process are stained, they are incomplete because during them our wrong actions remain uncorrected. Tahar yoma is literally a new beginning, a new day, one that is ‘clean’ from our past. For there to be tahar yoma, we need to have changed to the point where not only have we done our best to right our wrong, but we have committed to never repeat the mistake.
We may not have or even want these rituals anymore, but we have all made mistakes, and we all have regrets. The pursuit of tahar gavra and tahar yoma help us to make sure that tomorrow can be better than today.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras