Ritual Purification of a person with tzara’as
Offerings brought by a poor person with tzara’as
Tzara’as of houses
Ritual impurity of man’s unhealthy, venereal discharge
Ritual impurity of seminal emission
Ritual impurity of menstruation
Ritual impurity of abnormal menstruation
Name of the Parsha
The previous Parshat Tazria deals with the identification of the spiritual disease state known as tzara’as. This parsha deals with the process by which the sufferer rids himself of the affliction. If so, why is this week’s parsha named Metzorah—which means one who is afflicted with tzara’as—when it deals with the spiritual remedy and not the details of this condition?
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, tzara’as is to be viewed as an educational lesson designed to help a person correct his ways and experience a spiritual rebirth. The disease is only “skin deep”, conveying that it is not a deep-rooted problem. The metzorah will learn not to speak loshon hara anymore (since he will be isolated outside the city with no one to talk to) as he silently reflects on his behavior. He had abused his God-given gift of speech by using it to malign others. Now he is given the opportunity to change, to experience a spiritual re-birth, to correct past behavior and to start anew. Thus, concludes the Rebbe, the remedy described in the parsha is “not in fact an eradication of the tzara’as but rather a revelation of the good inner nature of the affliction”. The purification process is replete with symbolism alluding to the metzorah’s past behavior that he is now committed to abandon.
Ritual Purification of the Person with Tzara’as
Kohan goes outside of the camp, where the person with tzara’as is isolated, to examine him
If the tzara’as lesions have healed, the kohan instructs that the following be brought: two live birds, a piece of cedar, some crimson wool and a hyssop branch.
The kohan orders that one bird be slaughtered over fresh spring water in a clay bowel
The kohan takes the live bird with the piece of cedar, the crimson wool and the hyssop and dips them into the clay bowl filled with fresh water and blood of the slaughtered bird
The kohan sprinkles this mixture seven times on the person undergoing purification. (Note: this is a crucial part of the ritual purification process.)
The live bird is sent away towards the fields.
The person undergoing purification immerses his clothing in a *mikvah (pool of water).
The kohan shaves off all the person’s hair.
The person immerses himself in a *mikvah.
With this first part of the purification process now completed, the person returns to his home for seven days during which he may not be intimate with his wife and during which he renders unclean anything with which he comes into contact
On the seventh day, the kohan shaves off the person’s hair (on his head; his eyebrows; his beard and any other body hair)
The person immerses his clothing and body in a *mikvah after which he is considered tahor (clean; pure).
On the eighth day, the person brings the following offerings:
• Two unblemished male sheep
• One unblemished yearling female sheep
• Six quarts of the best grade wheat flour mixed with oil (as a meal offering)
• Ten ounces of olive oil
The kohan presents one male sheep as a guilt offering(asham) along with the 10 ounces of olive oil
The man is brought to the door of the Sanctuary (During the time of the Second Temple at Nicanor’s Gate, which divided the Women’s Court from the Court of the Israelites.)
The kohan slaughters the sheep and takes some of the blood and places it on the right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe of the person undergoing purification
The kohan takes some of the oil and pours it in the palm of his left hand
This kohan dips his right forefinger into the oil and sprinkles some toward the Holy of Holies seven times.
The kohan puts some of the oil on the tip of the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the person undergoing purification
The kohan puts the rest of the oil on the person’s head.
The kohan then sacrifices the sin and the burnt offerings and places the burnt and the meal offerings on the altar
With this, the kohan has made atonement for the person who is now completely tahor (ritually clean)
The Purification Ceremony
Nechama Leibowitz cites several approaches that focus on the symbolic meanings:
• Rashi maintains that since the tzara’as state was brought on by evil talk and idle chatter, the ceremony needs to involve birds which continually chatter and chirp. The mighty cedar tree is a symbol of haughtiness and pride that the metzorah exhibited. He needs to be brought down to the lowly level of the scarlet worm (source of the red
dye) and the hyssop, the lowliest of plants.
• Sefer Hachinuch focuses on the immersion in water which symbolizes a moment of re-creation, just as the universe consisted of water before its creation. The act of immersion is meant to prompt a reappraisal of one’s past conduct as he is being “reborn”.
• Rav S.R. Hirsch’s explanation is that the ritual is about changing the metzorah’s anti-social behavior. Birds are wild, uncontrolled and anti-social. Killing one of the birds is a symbolic act of complete abandonment of stormy, unrestrained behavior and speech that brought on the metzorah’s condition. The cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool symbolize the vastness of nature to which the metzorah was exiled (“outside the camp”) because of his anti-social behavior. Sending the second bird away serves as a reminder that one’s animalistic tendencies belong elsewhere-- out in the open field-- and not in society.
The rituals are meant to be transformative. Placing of the blood on the right ear, thumb and big toe is a ceremony used elsewhere only for the induction of the priests. These people had a healthy sense of self-worth and peace of mind, unlike the metzorah who, because of his feelings of worthlessness resorts to bolstering his own ego at the expense of others. Imitating the ceremony of the priest is a non-verbal communication of our belief/prayer that the experience of being a metzorah with its isolation and introspection, will bring with it a sense of worth comparable to that felt by the priests.
Shaving of the hair is reminiscent of the Nazirite who, as part of the ceremony of returning to society not only brings proscribed offerings, but is also required to shave his head.
The ceremony involves use of some liquids to which cleansing powers were attributed. Robert Alter notes that the water in the bowel is literally “living water”, suggesting flowing and carrying away impurities. The release of the second bird into the open country means carrying off any residual impurities to a place far from human habitation.
Professor Jacob Milgrom (cited by Robert Alter) opines that the redness of cedar wood and crimson wool is linked to blood, which functions as a purifying agent (as does oil). Hyssop was also considered to be a purifying agent.
Rabbi J. H. Hertz observes that hyssop is a convenient tool for sprinkling because “its leaves readily absorb the liquid and freely give it out when shaken.”
My friend Zach Dicker, noting the medicinal powers of certain tree barks and shrubs, speculates that the sprinkling provides some re-enforcing additional health benefits to the person undergoing purification.
Rav Michael Hattin of Yeshivat Har Etzion draws our attention to similarities between this ceremony and God’s commandments when the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt. Then, as they prepared to leave slavery for freedom, the Israelites were told to…
• Slaughter the Pascal lamb
• Gather the animal’s blood in a receptacle
• Take "a bundle of hyssop and to dip it into the blood that is in the receptacle…" and to smear it on the lintel and doorposts of their homes
In both situations “…a liquid that is either exclusively blood or else at least includes it as a main ingredient, is first gathered into some sort of receptacle, typically earthenware. A bundle of organic material that includes hyssop is next dipped into the liquid and some sort of sprinkling or smearing is then done with it. Afterwards, the status of the afflicted individual is transformed.” The Israelites in Egypt suffered from moral decay, physical pain and isolation. The exodus from Egypt transformed disparate groups in exile into a new nation, an organic whole filled with optimism and promise of a new life. Similarly, the metzorah in “exile” who prepares for a return to family and society utilizes the objects of the Exodus (hyssop, blood) as part of his transformation and his return to a unified society.
Rabbi David Fohrman’s approach builds on the extensive Talmudic discussion of the commonality of ritual required of a…
• menudah (one who has been excommunicated)
A metzorah is like a menudah in that each is required to dwell outside the camp
One who has tzara’as and a corpse are both similar and unique in that only they make objects within a room tameh even without physical contact
A corpse’s skin is deathly white; a metzorah experiences white skin discoloration, a wasting of flesh
A corpse is dead physically; a metzorah has “killed” someone (’s reputation) with his lashon hara (gossip and tale-bearing). Though biologically alive, he exhibits these characteristics of a corpse.
The metzorah-- like each of us-- is both a communal being and an individual. Rabbi Fohrman’s intriguing insight is that a metzorah really is mourning for himself:
• He mourns his loss of connection with society and family as he is “radically separated” outside the camp.
• His anti-social behavior (lashon hara) caused this disease which forced him to separate from the community.
• His communal side needs to be rebuilt and to be reconnected with those around him.
• The purification processes he is forced to undergo mimics the behavior during the Exodus described by Rabbi Hattin because it was through the performance of those rituals that we morphed from being individual, separate family units into a cohesive, organic societal whole. The metzorah needs to shake off his isolation in a similar ritualistic manner to re-join the community of Israel. After a seven-day waiting period he is permitted to return to the privacy of his home.
The mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath for purification and self-renewal. Water is the universal purifying agent. It denotes change and transformation. The mikvah pool recalls the watery state that each of us knew before we were born; the ritual of entering and leaving mayyim hayyim, living waters, creates the time and space to acknowledge and embrace a new state of life. It is not just a pool of water; it must be composed of stationary, not flowing, waters and must contain a certain percentage of water derived from a natural source, such as a lake, an ocean, or rain. Immersing oneself in the mikveh allows for a very personal, private meditative experience, a place to commune alone with God.
When the world was first created it was filled with water, for water possesses an innate relationship to the root and source of Creation. Manya Berenholz thinks that the mikveh ritual is entirely about creation --linking to God’s creation of the universe and linking to a woman’s ability to “create” a new life after intimacy with her husband.
From Aryeh Kaplan:
• Water is a cleansing agent. The same way we wash with water, we also purify with water
• A mikveh is like a womb and how one emerges "anew" from the mikveh. Like a womb is full of water, so is a mikveh
• By placing oneself in the water of the mikveh, a person enters a place where he cannot breathe, therefore cannot live. When emerging from water, he is like born again
• Water is the ultimate fluid, the substance that most represents change and instability, while earth is stability and permanence. Until God brought water in the world, no life or change was possible. Water is life, earth is death (and we return to it after death). When immersing in a mikveh, one spiritually immerses in the basic concept of change itself; nullifies one's ego (which represents our permanence); and emerges renewed and re-birthed. No evil is ineradicable, and no sin unforgivable ("repentance can wash away any sin").
Water is God. Immersing oneself in water is, symbolically, like immersing oneself in God. An analysis by Beth Lesh, an associate of Rabbi Fohrman, builds on the observation that the first time the root-word of mikveh appears in the Torah is in the creation story, after God separated the universal water into two sections: one above (heaven) and one below (earth). God commands the lower waters to “yikavu” (gather together), thereby creating a land mass surrounded by oceans and seas. In the beginning God’s world was water, but then He pushed aside part of His water world to make room for an Earth that would become Man’s world. When entering a mikveh one is taking leave of Man’s environment (Earth) and entering/returning to God’s domain (water).
I believe that the most effective way of performing any mitzvah is to first think about –and verbalize--what one is about to do before doing it (e.g. hinni muchan um’zuman). Reflecting on these ideas about mikveh gives meaning to the ritual and facilitates needed change.
Tzara’as No Longer Exists
The Rabbis of the Talmud explain that only one who is on a very high spiritual level is “worthy” of being punished so harshly for gossiping. Nevertheless, the fundamental ethical principle embedded in the parsha remains timeless. Namely, that we need be on guard always to avoid hurtful, malicious and gossipy speech.