Metzora: Living Within the Community
Metzora: Living Within the Community
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Last week, we had connected the laws relating to the purification of a metzora to the laws of the korban Pesach. Why would that be? In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman puts the pieces together and reminds us that both teach us about 'radical separateness' - and while each of us is an individual, we are also part of a larger unit.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Metzora. This video is the second of a two-part series, trying to unravel some of the mysteries associated with the strange affliction called tzara'at. If you haven't seen our first video, I recommend you go back and take a quick look now.
In that video, we noted the connections between the purification procedure of the metzora, and strangely, those of Korban Pesach, the Pesach offering. It almost seems as if the purification process of the metzora is a miniature version—a personal version—of the Pesach offering. Why would that be?
In order to understand that, I think we need to look a little bit more carefully at the laws of the metzora. If you look in the Talmud, the Gemara devotes several full folios to a discussion of the various different aspects of the laws of tzara'at, of how it is that the metzora should conduct himself while he is afflicted.
Without getting into a detailed discussion of those laws and customs, I want to raise one very interesting point. At least, it seems to me very interesting; which is that, the Gemara, throughout its discussion, compares three different kinds of people. The metzora on the one hand, the person afflicted with tzara'at, a mourner, somebody mourning a loss of a loved one, and a menuda, someone who is excommunicated. Over and over again, the Gemara poses questions regarding each of these three individuals. Can an excommunicated person wear shoes? What about a metzora? What about a mourner? Over and over, the Gemara compares these three different kinds of people. And the question is: why?
What Connects Metzora, Menuda, and Avel?If you compare these three different kinds of people, it must be that in some way, you see them as essentially connected. Now, to see the metzora as connected with the menuda—with somebody who is ex-communicated—makes a lot of sense. He is, in a way, excommunicated, he is outside of the camp. But why is it that we would see him in the same boat as a mourner, an 'avel'?
Well, you might respond to me, as we said last week, the metzora shares various characteristics of a dead person. He has a contamination status, a 'tuma' status, as if he is dead, even though he is alive. Aharon, speaking about his sister Miriam, speaks of her when she is inflicted with tzara'at as like a dead person. So maybe there is some logic in comparing the metzora to a mourner. A mourner is mourning for a dead person, except it doesn't really make much sense, does it? Because a mourner is mourning for someone else who is dead. The mourner is not himself dead.
The laws of tzara'at, on the other hand, seem to imply that the metzora is treated in some way as if he is dead. So, it wouldn't make sense to compare a metzora to a mourner; you have to compare a metzora to the person who is being mourned, that is, the dead person. Why would you compare him to the mourner? Ah! In that very question, I think, lies the key to what tzara'at really is.
Connecting Death to the Laws of Tzara'atLet's talk about a mourner for a moment. I once had a close relationship with a person who was dying. And said to me once, a statement which will never leave me, he said, "You know all the Jewish laws of mourning, when a mourner laments the loss of someone, he goes through all of this pain, all of this suffering, all of this mourning, because he is losing someone that he loves. But," he said, "you know who really should be mourning? The person who is dying. Because the mourner is only losing one person that he loves. What about the person who is dying? How many people is he losing? He's losing everyone. He's going to be cut off from all friends and family. He is the real mourner. Except he is dead, so he can't mourn."
What I want to suggest to you, is that the metzora is a kind of dead person. There's an aspect of him that's dead except that he is biologically alive. He experiences all facets of death, except for biological death. As such, he is like a mourner. Who is he mourning? He is mourning himself. He's mourning his own loss of connection to everyone. What is the fundamental experience of death? It is that; it is loss of connection. It is radical separateness. Why do we mourn if you know that the person is going to heaven, so aren't they in a better place? Yes! But they are not with me. I'm separated from them. Mourning is a function of separation.
The metzora mourns for himself. He is radically separated, outside the camp. Indeed if you look at the language with Miriam when she was afflicted with tzara'at, when she came back into the camp, the language was, "ad-he'asef Miriam," until she was gathered back into her people. That phrase—to be gathered into her people—actually is a phrase which is used to describe death. The death of righteous people, they are gathered into their people. Where is their people? Where is everybody? You know you think you are here with your friends in this world, but where really is your nation? It's in the next world.
You're gathered in, everyone gathers you in to the next world. A metzora is neither here nor there, neither dead, nor alive. Not yet gathered into the next world, but cut off from the people in this world, until the people in this world gather the metzora back in. Why is there a part of the metzora that's dead? What does it mean to say that the metzora is partially dead, if biologically he is alive? What could that possibly mean? I think the Korban Pesach gives us an answer.
What happened the night that we slaughtered the Pesach offering? Jews gathered in their homes with their families, and families slaughtered the Pesach offering. But once they put the blood on the door, and once they went through that door, something new was created—a national entity that transcended families. A nation was created! Until then, there was no nation. The greatest sense of community within the Jewish people was groups of families. So the groups of families got together and they each slaughtered this offering. But then, a grand community—nationhood—was created. When we slaughtered that offering, went free, this is our national birthday. We were born as a people, as a community. The Pesach offering is the birth of community.
Metzora and the Community: From Death to LifeIn what way is the metzora dead? Perhaps, the metzora is dead in the sense that the communal part of them has been caused to wither away, and they are just individuals. Cut off. And for that, they mourn. What I am suggesting is that, all of us are just two beings at the same time. We're individual beings, and we're communal beings. Both of them are real, both of them co-exist. We live in both realms. Imagine a liver cell in your body. Someone asks the liver cell: could you identify yourself, please? Liver cell says: "Sure! You know, I'm a cell. I've got my cell membrane, I've got my nucleus, I've got my messenger RNA, my DNA; I've got my lysosomes, mitochondria. You name it, I got it. I'm good!"
Has he told you the truth about himself? Yes. On one level, he is a very independent cell. He's got everything he needs to sustain life, but he hasn't yet really nailed his identity unless he has identified himself as part of something larger, as part of a liver. There's a communal side to what the cell is too. And the liver, also, despite it having its own identity as an organ, is also a part of something larger; it's a part of a body. And the body, any individual human being too, on the one hand, as an individual, is very independent, but is part of something larger…part of a family, part of a community. Our community was born that night, the night of Korban Pesach. We all went through that bloody door and we emerged part of something larger. That's what the metzora needs.
What Is the Spiritual Meaning of the Metzora Today?The metzora has engaged in some sort of failing that has caused him to be afflicted with a spiritual kind of malady. A malady that does not express itself as biological death, but is a kind of death. The communal part of the person has withered and it's interesting that the Midrash speaks of 'lashon ha-ra'a'—slander and haughtiness—as the kinds of things that perpetuate tzara'at. They're anti-social sins. They are sins that attack our communal sense of belonging. They set us apart. They focus on the individual at the expense of other individuals. Those sins beckon us to see ourselves in a false light, as only individuals, and when we see ourselves that way, the communal part of ourselves withers.
The metzora needs to rebuild his communal identity. He needs to partake his own little Pesach offering. He needs to go through that door and to rejoin the community, to redo the procedure by which we all joined community. We started off in our little family houses, slaughtered a Pesach offering and became part of a nation. And now, there's a little someone who's outside who's cut off, taken away from a body. Now we need to gather him in. He has to come in through his little Pesach offering. First into the community, then wait seven days, and then come into his house. And then, he can really be home.