The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this first video (the parsha video for Tazria, and the first video in this meal), we are introduced to a strange set of laws related to the metzora, one afflicted with tzara'at. How do we relate to such laws? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman begins to assemble clues, including the midrashic cause of tzara'at, the connection between a corpse and tzara'at, and echoes of this purification process earlier in the Torah.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Tazria. This week and next, I want to talk to you about one of perhaps the strangest set of laws in the entire Torah. The laws of an affliction, the Torah calls it tzaraat, some translations of the Torah will render this as leprosy. From my sense and harsh makes it very convincing case that biologically this isn't leprosy, it is some sort of whitish discoloration of the skin, the discoloration of the hairs but the Torah isn't interested in treating this medically. It is interested in treating it spiritually. It's seen in some sort of spiritual malady, that manifest itself in physical form and yet, it is such a strange thing, the purification process for the metzora, the person afflicted with tzaraat, seems to the modern ear so bizarre. There are this two birds, you kill one bird with a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread, a hyssop plant; you can imagine a skeptic comparing it to the first scene of Macbeth with the witches' cauldrons. How are we supposed to relate to these strange, strange laws of the metzora and the purification of the metzora?
So let's begin by assembling some clues. Clue number one and the Midrash suggest to us that tzaraat comes from involvement with certain sins, in particular speaking lashon harah, some form of gossip or slander about others. Other Midrashim associate tzaraat with general stature of haughtiness, some sort of consequence for a deep lack of humility. But then of course the question is why would involvement with these kinds of difficulties, lead specifically to this kind of spiritual physical symptom which we call tzaraat.
Let's assemble some other clues. What are the laws of metzora, how is the metzora treated? Well, there are two main facets to those laws, the first is the person who is afflicted with tzaraat is placed outside of the camp for the duration of the melody and the second is that he is impure but he is not just impure in a standard kind of way. There are different levels of ritual and purity. The greatest of which is that out of a corpse, of a dead person, known as avi avot hatumah. The grandfather, so to speak of all forms of ritual and purity. A corpse confers such a degree of ritual and purity that if the corpse is in a tent, everything in the tent, even things which are not touching the corpse become impure. So only one other thing in all of human experiences that has that same degree of ritual impurity and it is a metzora, a live metzora, somebody afflicted with tzaraat, has this same law, he goes in a tent, everything in the tent becomes tameh. He to is an avi avot hatumah so to speak, a primary source of ritual impurity. There seems to be some connecting point between a corpse, somebody is dead, and a metzora. Indeed if you think about the physical symptoms of metzora, unnatural bleaching of the skin. Think about when a person's skin is white, it is from the blood drains from the skin that happens in death. Indeed if you look at the only person in the Torah that we know of who is ever afflicted with tzaraat in 5 books of Moses, it was actually Moses's sister Miriam. Speaking about Miriam, Aaron says, al-na tehi kamet, please don't leave her in this state as if she is dead, there's something about tzaraat that seems to have close kinship with death itself. How do we understand why that is? Is it just because the metzora looks kind of corpse whitish or is there something more fundamental going on, something about a metzora that really is death in some way.
And finally one last clue, to try to understand what these laws of metzora are all about. We need to look at the strange purification procedure. It is really, really odd procedure but the key to figuring out its meaning may come from asking ourselves where have we heard all of these before. If listen very carefully to the way in which the metzora becomes pure. You will notice that all of that strange laws are actually patterned after something else that happened before in the Torah. What does this remind you of?
Let's take a quick look at some of these laws, in the purification procedure for the metzora. There were two birds. One was left alive and it's cast down in the field. The other is killed, its blood is meant to drip into a pool of clear water in an earthenware vessel changing the color of the water into blood, its part of the purification procedure. The cohen takes a little piece of cedar wood, a live bird, a scarlet thread and a plant called a hyssop and dipped them in the blood of the dead bird. At the end of this purification process the metzora can come back into the camp and he still has to wait outside his home for 7 whole days. When else do we have a process involving wood, a hyssop, blood, this being which live, this being which would die. When afterwards there is a 7 day period and something has to be kept outside of the house. When else do we encounter all of these? I will give you a little hint, when the Torah talks about the malady of the tzaraat it refers to it as nega, nun-gimel-ayin, a plague. Do you know there is only one other time in the entire 5 books of Moses that the word nega ever appears? Where is the only other nun-gimel-ayin in the Torah? Exodus 11:1, vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, God said to Moshe, od nega echad avi al-Mitzraim, one more plague I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, the plague of the killing of the first born. Strange, it is the only other nega in the Torah. Some way was God inflicted upon the Egyptians that night, a form of tzaraat. We talked before about the connections between tzaraat and death. This night, what was the 10th plague all about? It was about a kind of death that would miraculously come and afflict the first born.
Let's go on and read a little bit further on the 10th plague. Yishalach etchem mizeh, 'they will send you out from here', what was the language with the purification procedure of the metzora, for the live bird? V'shalach et hatzipor hachaya. The live bird get sent out on the face of the field. After the 10th plague the Jews were sent out into the desert. The Jewish firstborn lived that night but there are identical first born who died. One bird went to life, one bird went to death. What happens to that bird that dies in the tzaraat purification procedure? The blood goes into water. Chillingly the death of the Egyptian first born and the 10th plague is just a foreshadow of the death of the entire army of Egypt. A splitting of the sea, that's what happened in the first plague when miraculously the Nile turned to blood. That's what happened when the splitting of the sea, when Egyptians died in the water. The tzaraat purification procedure involves a little piece of cedar wood that gets dipped in blood, wood with blood. Yes, of course, painted with what? With an ezov, the same hyssop plant. That's what you dipped into blood to paint the door post. One more time in the metzora offering, that same plant gets dipped in blood and the 7 days waiting period, when the metzora when he can't be in his house, after the Pesach offering, there is a 7 days waiting period too. Chametz is banished from the house but can come back in after the 7 days.
As it happens, we weren't the first people to see these correspondences between the Pesach offering and the metzora offering. It is almost as if the metzora offering is a mini korban Pesach. The Ramban says this, Nachmanides, the famous medieval commentator, in a little comment tucked away at the when he is talking about the metzora. He says, it seems to me that all of these laws, sure sound like the Pesach offering but what does it mean, why? Why does the Torah need to teach us by constructing the purification process of the metzora in a way that models it after the Pesach offering? Why?
We will come back next week and try to explore that very question.
Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There is a little space for comments underneath these videos, please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.