Under the Microscope
זאת תהיה תורת המצרע ביום טהרתו והובא אל הכהן
“This shall be the law regarding the person with tzara’at, on the day of his purification he shall be brought to the Kohen.” (Vayikra 14:2)
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, discusses the laws of various forms of tumah [spiritual defilement] that result from certain discolorations on the body, clothing, or one’s home, as well as certain discharges. Removing the impurity is not always a simple matter; it is a long process, and immediate success is not guaranteed.
Though these impurities are spiritual and not subject to the laws of nature, one cannot help but wonder why it is so difficult to remove them. As they are hardly visible to the human eye, why is this extensive effort needed to purify oneself?
Mr. Sam Tucker supplies precious metals to his customers. These are not the typical gold, silver, or platinum; they are ultra-refined metals and far more valuable. His clients are mainly the US military who requires these metals for top-secret projects, NASA, and others involved in specialized research. A single item can run in excess of $250,000 and only a few orders are needed each year to maintain profitability. The primary expense lies in refining the metal to such a degree that no amount of impurity can be detected.
Usually, this process is exacting but smooth. But one day, disaster struck. One of Sam’s workers, a highly-trained employee, accidentally allowed the tip of one finger to come in contact with the two-inch strip of metal being prepared. This was an emergency. Immediately, Sam rented out a special lab and hired an expert in removing all traces of impurity. The expert toiled for two weeks attempting to remove all traces of human contact. Special chemicals and equipment were required. The total bill for the repair was $57,000.
Finally Sam was assured that the product was ready for delivery. Unwilling to risk shipping it via a third party, Sam hand-delivered the item to his client in Washington and returned home with the promise of payment as soon as the product cleared quality control. When two weeks passed and payment was still not forthcoming, he phoned his client to inquire about the delay. The response he received was, “We’re sorry to inform you that we are still unable to forward payment. It seems that quality control detected a slight trace of human contamination and we’re unsure whether this item will be acceptable for our purposes.” It took another few weeks of agonizing before the client accepted the metal and forwarded payment.
If incidental human contact that lasted less than a single second required such superhuman intervention to be removed, it should come as no surprise to us that spiritual contamination, too, cannot so easily be removed. The neshamah (Jewish soul) is a highly precious entity that must maintain an elevated degree of purity in order to achieve its pure goals. The small sin stains it, and only with an intensive cleansing process can it truly be removed.
…ולקח למטהר שתי צפרים… ושחט את הצפור האחת… ואת הצפר החיה… ושלח את הצפר על פני השדה
…And for the person being purified there shall be taken two birds .…and the one bird shall be slaughtered …and he shall set the live bird free … (Vayikra 14:4-8)
Metzora begins by recounting the purification process necessary for a person stricken with tzara’at. After the Kohen, the Priest, declares that the blemish has been cured, he gets hold of two birds, cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop. One of the birds is ritually slaughtered. The other, along with the cedar wood, crimson thread and hyssop, is dipped in the blood of the first bird and set free.
As explained by Rashi, the birds (and the other elements required for this ritual) serve as a mirror of the the metzora’sactions. After all, Rashi points out, the afflictions struck this individual because of his propensity for “twittering” (yes, that is the language Rashi uses!) loshon horah (slander, gossip and derogatory speech) about others. Therefore, the ritual requires birds, which are “constantly twittering with a chirping sound.” (Vayikra 14:4)
The author of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, asks a basic question regarding this ritual: Granted, the birds send a message about the metzora’s behavior, but why does the Torah require two birds rather than just one? Furthermore, why is one bird slaughtered and the other free?
As with other offerings, the bird-offering of the metzora was more than simply a “sacrifice.” Its purpose was to inspire him to engage in serious introspection regarding his actions and commit himself to improving his ways. Ideally, a metzora would walk away from this scene with a powerful conviction never to speak loshon horah again. This explains why two birds were used, and why one bird was set free. Had the metzora been required to slaughter only one bird, it would be quite understandable for him to conclude that the best course of action would be to refrain from speech altogether. Better to keep his mouth closed – permanently – than fall back into the patterns that brought him such difficulties in the first place.
By requiring two birds, one of which is kept alive, the Torah sends a powerful message about the nature of speech and its role in a person’s life. Humans are not meant to keep silent. We were given the power of speech, and we are required to use it – as long as we use it properly. Speech should be used to increase wisdom, to study Torah, to comfort the downtrodden, to express our aspirations, to help others. The lesson for the metzora is not to stop speaking. Rather, it is to redirect his power of speech in positive ways that enhance life. This is the reason the second bird is kept alive and allowed to go free.
There is a legend about an elderly grandfather who related a dream to his young grandchildren. “I dreamt of a terrible fight going on inside me, between two wolves,” the grandfather said. “One wolf was full of anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. “The other was good,” the grandfather continued. “He was full of peace, sharing, humility, kindness, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, and compassion. In my dream, I saw the same fight going inside of all of you and of every other person, too.”
Hearing the story, one of the children asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In our times, we do not have guidance of tza’arat to help us improve the way we interact with others. Yet, the detrimental effects of negative attitudes and speech are everywhere to be seen – in the media, among friends and family, in business and elsewhere. Moreover, there are times our words or actions come back to haunt us, separating us from our social circles, harming our livelihood, distancing us from the people we care about most.
At such times, a person may be tempted to deal with his remorse by withdrawing even further from society. However, the lesson of the metzora teaches us that withdrawal is not an option. Rather, the lesson of the metzora is to learn from our mistakes and re-engage the world in ways that inspire both ourselves and the people around us to achieve our fullest potential.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Q: In Parshat Metzora, we are introduced to an illness known as tzara’at. Tzara’at is a spiritual sickness, whose physical manifestations are similar to leprosy. The Torah requires (Vayikra 13:46) a person with tzara’at to dwell outside of the Jewish camp, and a house with tzara’at is boarded up (Vayikra 14:38) and its stones are scraped away and disposed of outside of the city (Vayikra 14:40). Does this mean that although tzara’at is spiritual in nature, it is still considered physically contagious?
A: The Ibn Ezra (Vayikra 13:2) and Rabbeinu Bechaye write that although it came as a spiritual punishment for sins, it was nevertheless contagious. The Meshech Chochmah by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk suggests that it was for this reason that tzara’at was viewed and ruled upon specifically by the Kohanim (Priests). Because it was contagious, G-d wanted those who were separated from the rest of the people and enjoyed unique Divine protection to be in charge of it. In Derech Sicha, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky notes that this view seems to be rooted in the Talmud (Kesuvos 77b). (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Why is a house afflicted with tzara’at and destroyed if it is an inanimate object which lacks free will and which never sinned?
A: Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, known as the Beit HaLevi, explains that a person’s actions have influence upon his surroundings. If a person does mitzvot and kind deeds, his environs are uplifted, and if he sins, his surroundings are negatively affected. Conversely, a person is also influenced by his environment. Noah’s generation became so wicked that they corrupted the entire world, leaving G-d with no choice but to destroy it and begin again anew.
In the case of the house, its owner spoke so much lashon hara (evil gossip) that it permeated the very walls and foundation of the home, rendering it impure to its core. As if that weren’t bad enough, the house has become transformed into a place with the potential to corrupt even pure and innocent people who enter its doors. As a result, just as in the times of Noah, there is no choice but to seal it off to prevent any further damage from occurring. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
BROUGHT TO HIS KNEES
“This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification: He shall be brought before the Kohen.” Vayikra 14:2
He Shall Be Brought Before The Kohen – This means that he is brought to the edge of the camp since he may not actually enter it, and the Kohen (Priest) meets him there. – Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century)
However, he must come to a place that is easy for the Kohen to reach so that the Kohen should not be overly troubled to accommodate him. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, 1475-1550)
He Shall Be Brought Before The Kohen – What is the meaning of the words, ‘This shall be the law of the metzora?’ This shall be the law of one who is “Motzi Shem Rah” [gives others a bad name] – Talmud, Eiruchin 16a
Who is at risk of having his name sullied? Only one who already has earned a “good name” [i.e. good reputation]. This often includes those who serve as leaders of the congregation and are prime targets for the frustrations of others who seek any excuse to besmirch them. Rav Chaim Volozhin zt”l, explained that this is the reason that the metzora (person afflicted with “tzara’at”) must “be brought” before the Kohen rather than appearing on his own. Through his critical words, he brought indignity to the Kohen [i.e. communal leader], and he therefore is unfit to appear before him except as a humble and inadequate being. Perhaps this vantage point will inspire him to regard the communal leaders in a new light, erase his bitterness toward them, and lead him to speak of them more positively in the future.
“This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification…The Kohen shall go forth to the outside of the camp; the Kohen shall look and behold the tzara’at affliction has been healed from the afflicted. The Kohen shall command and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread, and hyssop.” Vayikra 14:2-4
The Kohen shall go forth to the outside of the camp – Why does the Kohen have to go to the metzora if he is already clean of the tzara’at? This teaches us how to accept a penitent. Instead of vilifying him for his past sins, or allowing his reputation to be tarnished, the Torah makes it possible for him to reclaim his good name. Once he has purified himself, instead of asking him to go to the Kohen, the Torah insists that the Kohen go outside all three camps and visit him. This will cause a public outcry as people wonder why the holy Kohen is leaving the encampment and word will spread that so-and-so has repented and been healed from his tzara’at. Many will honor the Kohen and join him in his mission and all of them will witness the final purification ceremony and acknowledge the innocence of the former metzora. – Sifsei Kohen
Chasam Sofer wonders why the Torah elaborates and writes, “and behold the tzara’at affliction has been healed from the afflicted.” Would it not have sufficed to write merely, “and behold the tzara’at affliction has been healed?” Isn’t it obvious that it is the afflicted who was healed? He explains that this entire purification process was only necessary because the person allowed it to reach a point where he was finally afflicted. Had he willingly accepted the early warning signs of affliction and repented then, the entire ceremony would have been unnecessary. His refusal to immediately correct his flawed behavior is what caused this to occur. Thus, the Torah highlights the fact that he was afflicted to emphasize the point that this needn’t have been the case in the first place.
THE REUNITED STATES
“This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification… The Kohen shall command and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson thread, and hyssop.” Vayikra 14:2-4
Two live clean birds – This excludes non-kosher birds. These skin afflictions come as a result [of the sin] of evil speech which is an action involving chattering, therefore birds, who twitter endlessly, are used for the metzora’s purification. – Rashi
Two live clean birds – The fact that the Torah writes “birds,” and the minimum number of birds [i.e. plural] is two, we already know that he must bring two birds. Why did the Torah need to state explicitly that two are required? To teach us that they must be identical in their appearance, height, and monetary value. – Talmud, Tractate Yoma 62b
Why should the two birds need to be identical and why were two birds necessary in the first place? One of the primary causes of tzara’at (spiritual skin affliction) is evil speech which causes harmony and peace among people to be replaced with strife and divisiveness. The two birds represent the two warring parties and the Hebrew word for bird is tzippor which has a numerical value of 376, the same as shalom [peace]. The message is that in order to achieve purification, it is not sufficient to bring two birds as offerings. Rather, one must restore shalom and harmony to the two parties and bring them back to their original state in which they were like one, rather than allowing them to remain in their disharmonious and fragmented state. Therefore, the two sacrificial birds must resemble one another in every way to symbolize their reunited state.
“When you shall arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as an inheritance, and I will place a tzara’at affliction upon a house in the land of your inheritance. The one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare to the Kohen, ‘Something like an affliction has appeared to me in the house.” Vayikra 14:33, 34
Within these verses lies an allusion to the future destruction of the Holy Temples.
- “I will place a tzara’at affliction upon a house in the land of your inheritance” – This refers to the Holy Temple; the house within our land.
- “The one to whom the house belongs”– This refers to the Almighty, to whom the Holy Temple belongs.
- “And declare to the Kohen” – This refers to the Kohen Jeremiah who ministered to the Jews during the time of the Destruction of the First Temple.
- “Something like an affliction has appeared to me in the house”– This refers to idol worship which was prevalent in those times or to the idol statue erected by Manasseh. The presence of this vile abomination caused the Almighty to destroy His House. Medrash Rabba 17:7
One might think that this destruction would be of a permanent nature never to be undone. In response to this, the Medrash adds, “After declaring the house contaminated, the Torah writes, ‘And they shall remove the stones that contain the affliction and they shall cast them outside the city onto a contaminated place.’ This corresponds to the Jewish nation being exiled from the land to Bavel, a contaminated place. Yet, they would not remain there forever for as the verse says, ‘They shall take other stone and bring them in place of the stones…’ The damage will be undone and the people will be returned to their land.”
“When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you as an inheritance, I will place the tzara’at affliction in houses in the land you inherit.” Vayikra 14:34
I Will Place The Tzara’at In Houses – “I will place” implies that this message contains good tidings for the Jewish people. Indeed, the Amorites hid their valuables in the walls of their homes in anticipation of the Jewish conquest of their land. Through the house afflictions and the subsequent deconstruction of the home, the treasures would be discovered. – Rashi
Through The House Afflictions…The Treasures Would Be Discovered – This however, only explains cases where the discoloration reappears and requires the removal of portions of the wall. It does not explain situations in which the discoloration appeared but did not require the removal of the concealing stones? Furthermore, our sages taught that house afflictions appear due to stingy behavior not as a means of enriching us? Indeed, there is no question that the overall appearance of these afflictions is not a positive sign, as they stem from a negative behavior pattern. In His great kindness however, even a negative can result in a great positive if the person is worthy. One who regretted his stinginess and repented, merited to have the walls opened and a great treasure revealed, that he could now utilize in generous fashion. – Taz, Aruch HaShulchan
The idea that this very trying set of circumstances is designed to potentially result in great wealth and fortune, is indicative of the special nature of G-d’s method of “punishing” His children. Even when He must exact severe measures and greatly inconvenience them, His ultimate goal is to make their situation even better than it was previously. This is a far cry from the concept of “revenge” that most people exercise against those who incur their wrath.
TORAH: ALWAYS SAFE
“G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Any man who shall have a discharge from his flesh…’” Vayikra 15:1, 2
Speak to the Children of Israel and Say to Them: Speak To… – This refers to teaching them the basic law [of contamination]
And Say to Them – This refers to the in-depth study of the laws and their applications for the sake of “Torah Study.”
The reason the verse added this unique instruction of “and say to them,” is because the subject matter under consideration is delicate, sensitive, and not always appropriate for public discussion. In light of this, one might have thought that anything beyond a basic discussion of the laws should be avoided. To emphasize that when discussed in the context of Torah study, no subject is inappropriate, the Torah emphasized that even after the essential discussion, we must continue to plumb the depths of these laws, for no spiritual harm can possibly result from Torah study, when motivated by purity and altruism. – He’emek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Netziv)
“You shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurities and they will not die because of their impurities through their defilement of My dwelling in their midst.” Vayikra 15:31
You shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurities – “Where can a hint be found in the Torah to the custom of erecting a monument over a grave? Mar Zutra said, ‘You shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurities.’” – Talmud, Tractate Moed Kattan 5a
By erecting a monument, others will be aware of the presence of the grave and avoid it so that they do not become impure. – Torah Temimah
Through their defilement of My dwelling in their midst – “This teaches us that even while we are defiled, the Divine Presence still rests in our midst” [and therefore our distasteful behavior is disrespectful to the Divine Presence and results in such a severe reprimand]. – Toras Kohanim
Interestingly, the word used by the Torah to connote separation is “v’hizartem,” as opposed to the more conventional term, “v’hifrashtem.” This, explains Sfas Emes, is because the word “v’hizartem” contains the root “zer” which means “crown,” and implies that when the Jewish people are careful to avoid impurity, they are worthy of bearing a crown of royalty. Our mandate from the Torah is not merely to be good people or even good Jews. We are expected to strive for the royal status and exclusivity borne through a heightened focus on achieving and maintaining a lifestyle of purity.
Hey, I Never Knew That
The Torah portion this week discusses in detail the disease known as tzara’at. This is usually identified as leprosy, and it is often, mistakenly, assumed that the laws surrounding the disease are designed to prevent infection. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the disease in the Torah is not leprosy, and that the laws are designed to be moral and spiritual therapies for one who transgressed morally and spiritually against his fellow Jew by gossiping or slandering. His separation from society is not a medical quarantine but a reaction to his contribution to the breakdown of society by his sinful speech. He quotes the following from a British government report on leprosy in 1868 by the Royal College of Physicians: “The all-important question for the government is whether this disease is contagious or not. There can be no doubt that the Jews considered it to be so, and that the strictest quarantine was imposed upon those who contracted it. Nevertheless, it seems probable from several indications that the Jews of old classed all skin diseases as leprous… It is a remarkable fact, moreover, that present-day Jews seem to be less liable to the attacks of contagious illnesses than their European neighbors, which may be due to a trace which still remains from these ceremonious practices which exercised great influence on the physical forces and energies of the ancient Jews.”
Word of the Week
“And he shall take in order to לחטא — lechateih — to cleanse the [impure] house” (Vayikra 14:49). The word לחטא — to cleanse is based on the word חטא, which usually means “sin.” Here, according to Rabbi Hirsch, the meaning is “to expiate or to free from sin.” Onkelos translates the word as “to cleanse,” and in Modern Hebrew the word is used to mean “disinfect.” The use of a word for two opposite meanings (sin-clean) is a common feature in Hebrew, and according to the Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, Second Introduction) is an illustration of the monotheistic idea that everything, even complete opposites, have their origin in the One G-d.
The Torah portion this week states that someone who is impure must immerse in a mikvah in order to be purified (Vayikra15:16). The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) states that a man must purify himself in a mikvah before every festival. Maimonides legislates this as an obligation, but it is clear from his language that it only applies in the days when there is a Temple and offerings (Mishneh Torah, Tumat Ochlin 16:10). Is there such an obligation nowadays? Rashi (Yevamot 29b) understands that the obligation to immerse before a festival is based on the holiness of the festival which applies even today, and that one who is impure should immerse himself in a mikvah before each festival. In fact, nowadays there is a common custom for men to immerse in the mikvah before each festival (Shaarei Teshuvah, Orach Chaim 529:2).
Parsha at a Glance
Parshat Metzora discusses the purification process for the metzora (a person inflicted with tzara’at). After the Kohen declares him to be pure, the metzora completes a ritual procedure using two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop. He is then allowed to enter the camp, but he must dwell outside of his tent for seven days. His impurity is now only contagious through direct contact, being considered a primary source of uncleanliness. Before entering the camp, the metzora’s entire body is shaved. After a seven-day wait, the person is shaved a second time, and on the eighth day, brings three animals and an oil offering to the Temple. With this, the purification process is completed.
The Torah offers an alternative for one who lacks the finances to participate in the prescribed offerings.
The laws dealing with blemishes that appear on a house are detailed. The parsha concludes with other forms of contamination and their appropriate purification processes.