Par’shiot Tazria & Metzora
Since this is not a leap year we are again studying two parshiyot rather than one. The first is entitled Tazria and covers V’yikra 12.1 through 13.59. This par’sha addresses a person who is in an unclean state. The second par’sha, entitled Metzora, spans V’yikra 14.1. through 15.33 and discusses the process of how a person afflicted with tza’arat is cleansed.
Chapter twelve is dedicated exclusively to a woman who has given birth. The title of this first par’sha is taken from verse two that states, when a woman gives birth טַזְרִיע. Tazria is from the shoresh zera זרע, which means seed. Even though we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply1, giving birth places a woman in an unclean state for a set period of time, depending upon whether it is a boy or a girl. Unclean, from tamei טָמְאָה, refers to a ritual state of uncleanness, not a sinful state.
If she gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for seven days and the same rules of niddah apply during this time. On the eighth day the baby boy is circumcised and the mother remains in the blood of her cleansing thirty-three days. She is not allowed to come into the set-apart place during this time.
If her child is a daughter, she remains in her unclean state for two weeks and in the blood of her cleansing for sixty-six days. In both cases, the laws of niddah apply. She doesn’t touch what is set-apart nor does she come into the set-apart place. Since the Temple no longer stands, these commandments have less of an impact on us today.
The closing verses of chapter twelve establish the sacrifices she is to bring for her atonement and to complete her period of cleansing.
Chapter thirteen describes a special type of affliction that is often mistranslated as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Tza’arat, which is the Hebrew name of this affliction, is far different than leprosy. Leprosy can be a very infectious disease characterized by disfiguring skin sores, nerve damage and progressive debilitation if not properly treated - treatment that was not available during Biblical times. In past generations, lepers were quarantined and often forced to live in leper colonies to prevent the spread of the disease.
The affliction described in chapter thirteen is not only different, it is treated differently. Tza’raat צַרָעַת is from the shoresh צרע (not זרע for seed) which means to erupt. A person determined to be afflicted with tzaraat is called a metzora, which is the subject of our second par’sha this week.
Chapter thirteen contains very detailed instructions for the kohen to follow in determining if a person has become a metzora. The person suspected of having been afflicted is first examined by a kohen. If the kohen determines it is tza’raat, the person is declared uncleaned and placed outside the camp.
If the kohen suspects it is tza’raat but can’t immediately confirm it, the person shall be shut up13.4 for seven days. Shut up from sagar סגר means to confine or quarantine. If it has not spread at the end of the second seven-day period, the kohen declares him clean. If it has spread, he is declared unclean.
If, however, the tza’raat breaks out all over the sin and covers all the skin of the infected one, from his head to his foot, wherever the kohen looks, the kohen is to declare the infected one clean. Strange laws, but they are Y’H’V’H’s laws.
And tzaraat could effect more than people. It could also appear on his clothing, on leather or even in a person’s home.
Chapter thirteen makes it clear that tzaraat is not a contagious disease; a person whose body was completely afflicted was declared clean, a person could still enter his house and remove his possessions if the house was afflicted. At the same time, once a person was declared to be a metzora he was placed outside the camp. So what was this strange disease and what was its purpose?
In D’varim 24.8 Mosheh warned Yisrael to, Take heed, in an outbreak of of tzaraat to diligently guard to do all that the kohanim, the Levites, teach you. As I have commanded them, so shall you do. It is clear that breaking Y’H’V’H’s commandments can lead to an outbreak of tzaraat among His people, but which commandments? D’varim 24.9 gives us a clue. Remember what Y’H’V’H your Elohim did to Miryam on the way when you came out of Mitsrayim. Mosheh was referring to the time when she and Aharon had spoken against Mosheh for marrying a Kushite woman. As a result, Miryam was struck with tzaraat and became a metzora for seven days.B’midbar 12.1-15 Speaking against others - gossip, slander, murmuring - is one cause for tzaraat - if not the main cause.
The word metzora may give us another clue. Some scholars believe metzora is a contraction of the Hebrew words motzi ra2 - one who spreads slander. Based on this understanding some scholars believe this includes some of the seven things Melek Sh’lo’mo wrote that are abominations to Y’H’V’H:
a proud look
a lying tongue
hands that shed innocent blood
a heart that devises wicked schemes
feet quick to run to evil
a false witness breathing lies
and one causing strife among the brothers.Mishle 6.10-19
Melek David once asked, Y’H’V’H, who can sojourn in Your tent?…those who have no slander on their tongue, who have not done their friends evil or cast disgrace upon his intimate.T’hillim 15
While we may not know all the transgressions that cause tzaraat, it is clear that speaking evil of someone - slander, gossip, murmuring - one of them. Understanding this makes this week’s Haftarah portion even more interesting.
M’lakim בּ 7.3-20
During the days of the navi Elisha Ben-Hadad, sovereign of Aram, mustered all his army and laid siege to Shomeron. With each passing day conditions in the city grew more and more unbearable. It was during this time that the events of our Haftarah portion took place.
On the evening before the siege was broken, four metzorim (translated as lepers in most English texts) were sitting at the entrance of the gate - caught between a dying city and the opposing army. They were debating on whether to return to the city and the scarcity of food where they would surely die or to take their chances with the Arameans. If they Arameans kept them alive, they lived and if they killed them, they would die. Not a lot of good choices for these men, but consider what was going on in the land at the time.
The people of Shomeron were suffering terribly because of their disobedience to Y’H’V’H. People were dying, starvation was rampant - so much so that some had taken to eating their own children. Even the king had given up waiting on Y’H’V’H to deliver them. And yet, among all of the suffering in the city, Y’H’V’H had still punished four men with tzaraat.
The king sent an officer to Elisha, but the navi told him that the siege would be broken the very next day. He didn’t tell the king’s officer how or why. If fact, it isn’t clear whether Elisha even knew how or why it would be broken - only that it would be broken. We don’t read any t’shuvah on behalf of the people and it has already been noted that the king given up hope of Y’H’V’H delivering them, so why would Y’H’V’H break the siege? Even the officer doubted the navi’s words and openly confessed his doubt to Elisha,who told him, Look, you are about to see it with your eyes, but not eat of it.7.2
It is at this point that our attention is turned to the debate the four metzorim were having and their decision to take their chances with the Arameans. They didn’t know at the time that Y’H’V’H had caused the Aramean army to hear the noise of chariots, horses and a great army, which caused them to drop everything and flee. So at twilight the four metzorim rose up and came to the outskirts of the camp to take their chances.
Finding the camp the deserted, they went into one tent, ate, drank and then took what silver, gold and garments they could find and hid them. Then they went to the next tent and did the same thing. But then they said to each other, ‘We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent. And if we wait until morning light, then evil shall come upon us. And now, come, let us go and inform the house of the sovereign.7.9
We aren’t told what evil they thought would come upon them. Were they afraid the people of Shomeron would discover the Arameans had fled and what these men had done or were they afraid the Arameans would discover there had been no great army in the night and return to their camp and discover them? These four men could have simply taken what they wanted, loaded it on the horses and donkeys the Arameans had left behind and left, but they choose a different route.
Instead of thinking of themselves, they thought of their brothers still suffering inside the walls of the city. These were the people that had been required by Torah to place the outside the walls of the city. And what had their transgression been? From what we have seen in Scripture we know tzaraat is used to punish lashon ha’ra - the evil tongue. It is used against those who speak against their brothers - gossiping, slandering, murmuring, lying, causing strife among the brothers. But now, instead of gossiping or slandering, or whatever strife they had caused, they were thinking of the suffering of their brothers were enduring and, instead of slandering them, they decided to return with the good news.
Had this been Y’H’V’H’s plan all along? The people hadn’t repented and the king had given up hope. Eliyahu had never doubted. The only change we see is in these foiur men. Had they been the reason Y’H’V’H had caused the Aramean army to hear the noise of a great army and fled? Was it because four metzorim had learned their lesson and now wanted to help rather than hurt their brothers? Was the enough to merit Y’H’V’H’s mercy for the entire city?
Today it appears that the people of Yisra’el are no longer afflicted with tzaraat, but I wouldn’t characterize this as a good thing. Think of the body of Messiah today. Think of the people of the remnant of Yisra’el. How many cases of tzaraat would we witness among ourselves today? We no longer live in our land. The world is growing dimmer and more corrupt by the day. Have we learned what those four metzorim learned - to love our neighbor as ourselves?
But rather than shake our heads at the thought of how many cases of tzaraat we may or may not see if this disease still afflicted us, think of this: Think of the power of t’shuvah and forgiveness. Think of the deliverance Y’H’V’H would bring to His people if we would stop the gossip and slander and focuses on helping each other. Think about the difference you could make in someone’s life if the next time you wanted to talk about them to someone else, you found a way to help change them or to change the circumstances they are trapped in - even if it is by their own doing.
Maybe that has been the purpose of tzaraat all along; to make us realize what Y’H’V’H will do for us and through us when we finally learn to obey Him and to be like Him.
6 Iyar 5775/25 April 2015
1 B’reshith 1.28; 9.1,7
2 see Sh’mot 22.6: spreads is from מָצְאָה