One of the most fascinating sections of the Torah is found in this week’s Torah reading, Metzora, which in most years is read together with last week’s reading, Tazria. (This being a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, however, they are read separately.) In Tazria-Metzora, the Torah devotes two whole chapters of Leviticus, 13 and 14, to a discussion of an affliction called tzaraat. Tzaraat manifests differently whether it is suffered by a person, living in the walls of a home, or growing in woven cloth or skin. In all cases, the afflicted is considered tamei, loosely defined as “spiritually unclean,” and in need of purification. If the affliction does not go away, a person is isolated from the community indefinitely, and affected homes and cloth are destroyed. If the priest determines an afflicted person to be healed, on the other hand, the priest oversees two complicated rituals eight days apart to make the afflicted tahor, “spiritually clean,” and able to enter the precinct of the Tabernacle once again.
What is tzaraat? In a person, tzaraat resembles a skin disease, wrongly termed “leprosy” in most translations, the symptoms of which include “a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red” beneath the surface of the skin (Lev. 13:19). In a home or in cloth or skin, it appears as an “eruptive affection” or “plague” resembling greenish or reddish streaks. In short, tzaraat is some kind of skin disease or scary mold.
Interestingly, the Torah offers neither a cause nor an explicit cure for the affliction. Thus, rabbis and scholars from the Temple period in the late centuries of the first millennium BCE until our own day, have offered their own explanations for the outbreak of tzaraat. Most have determined that gossip and malicious speech, lashon hara in Hebrew, is the cause, basing their analysis on verses from the parasha as well as a certain folk etymology of metzora (“motzi ra” means “evil comes out” of one’s mouth). They also generalize from God’s punishment of Miriam with tzaraat following her mean-spirited speech about Moses (Numbers 12) to say that all cases of tzaraat are brought on by God as a punishment for lashon hara.
I have often taken Tazria-Metzora as an opportunity to teach on the folly of lashon hara because I believe it is vitally important to address this most prevalent of practices, which undermines the health of families, friendships and communal life. Notwithstanding my homiletic use of Tazria-Metzora in this way, I actually find it highly problematic to suggest that someone who suffers a disease does so as a result of his or her misdeeds, whatever they might be. I’m not even convinced that our biblical ancestors held that theology, though in the absence of a more sophisticated understanding of disease, they might have.
Rather than focus on the cause of tzaraat, I am drawn to the purification ritual that we find in chapter 14:
This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.
When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over flowing water (my translation). He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days (Lev. 14:2-8, translation from Jewish Publication Society).
Biblical commentators often link this ritual to the malady of lashon hara. They explain that the birds, through their chirping and chattering, symbolize the tendency to let our speech get out of control. The cedar represents the haughtiness that leads us to engage in gossip and malicious speech, with the low-growing hyssop and the crimson thread or die (or more accurately, the worm that produces the thread or die) representing being brought low as a result of our actions. While these are creative interpretations of the items used in the purification ritual, they feed into the insidious tendency to place blame for suffering on those who suffer.
I want to offer an alternative way of looking at the ritual involving birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson as a ritual of blessing and renewal following the period of affliction. One of the birds is slaughtered for its blood. Blood is the source of life. Spilling the blood dramatizes the death-like experience of one who is cut off from his/her family, friends and community. Without human connection, life is dull, at best, unbearably miserable, at worst. The one who has recovered from tzaraat has known that death-like experience. As the blood of the bird washes away in the stream of water, the death-like experience is washed away, made something of the past.
Meanwhile, the other bird is set free. The metzora, too, is set free: set free from disease, from isolation, from the prohibition from offering sacrifices to God. The healed sufferer has new wings with which to soar through life. At the same time, the live bird is marked by the blood of the one that was slaughtered. The person who suffered as the metzora may put the suffering behind him/her, but the reality is that the person, just as the bird, is somehow changed by the experience of suffering. The suffering and the isolation are now part of his/her life story, a chapter to be integrated into a larger narrative. How the person who suffered does the work of meaning-making is now up to him/her.
The cedar tree appears in Psalms and in our liturgy as a symbol of uprightness and righteousness. The righteous shall flourish like the palm (tree), shall thrive (grow tall) like a cedar in Lebanon (Psalm 92:13). The one who has suffered is and always has been among the righteous. Though brought low like hyssop physically, spiritually and psychologically, the metzora, now healed and soon to be reunited with society, regains his/her stature as a “cedar” in his/her own esteem. Those who love him/her will surely notice his/her presence, as they would a tall cedar, when he/she returns home.
Finally, we are left with the mystery of life itself. How is it that the dried body of a tiny worm give us such a magnificent dye as this crimson? From something so inconsequential comes something so beautiful. (In Christianity, this worm is a metaphor for Jesus.) This is the same crimson that would become part of the fabric of the Tabernacle itself! Perhaps the crimson is meant to have us savor life itself, cause us to marvel over the human body and its ability to overcome disease.
Together, the birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson serve to bless the metzora with a life free from suffering, a life of righteousness. They welcome the healed back to the world with all its beauty and mystery. The water, sprayed from the cedar and hyssop upon the metzora seven times, wakes the metzora to a world of wholeness and possibility. With this ritual, there is no stigma, no presumption of wrongdoing, only blessing.
Though our studies of Tazria-Metzora will surely always remind us to guard our tongues, there is much more to discover in these odd, perhaps disturbing, readings. Our biblical ancestors were eager to pronounce the metzora “clean,” not necessarily from sin but from a kind of suffering that could only be overcome in isolation. With this ritual, our ancestors celebrated life, bestowed blessing, and welcoming back one of their own. May this be a model for us as we greet anew those in our midst who have suffered disease or estrangement and are now ready to join their voices to the chorus of life once again.