The Bizarre Purification Of The Metzora
The Tzaraat Purification Ritual: What Does It Mean?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's parsha, we are introduced to a strange set of laws related to the metzora, one afflicted with the disease of tzara'at. In the following parsha, the Torah will explain, in great detail, how a person with this disease can become pure. But the purification ritual is bizarre; how can we relate to these bizarre Biblical purification rituals in a modern context? How should we understand what causes a metzora to lose his spiritual purity, and how purification rites help him gain it again?
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. By highlighting these connections, the Biblical purification rituals for Tzara'at take on a whole new meaning, one that is still relevant today.
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 sets of laws in the entire Torah: the laws of an affliction. The Torah calls it tzara'at.
Understanding the Laws of the Tzara'at DiseaseSome translations of the Torah will render this as leprosy, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes a very convincing case that, biologically, this isn't leprosy. It is some sort of whitish discoloration of the skin, a discoloration of the hairs. But the Torah isn't interested in treating this medically, it's interested in treating it spiritually. It's seen as some sort of spiritual malady that manifests itself in physical form.
And yet, it is such a strange thing.The purification process for the "metzora"—the person afflicted with tzara'at—seems, to the modern ear, so bizarre. There's two birds, you kill one bird, there's 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.
The Bizarre Purification Rituals of the MetzoraHow 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: the Midrash suggests to us that tzara'at comes from involvement with certain sins; in particular, speaking 'lashon hara'—some form of gossip or slander about others. Other Midrashim associate tzara'at with a general stature of haughtiness, see it as some sort of consequence for a deep lack of humility.
But then of course, the question is: well, why would involvement with these kinds of difficulties lead specifically to this kind of spiritual, physical symptom which we call tzara'at?
How Does the Metzora Lose Their Spiritual Purity?Let's assemble some other clues. What are the laws of metzora? How is the metzora treated? Well there’s two main facets to those laws: the first is, the person afflicted with tzara'at is placed outside the camp for the duration of the malady. And second: is that he is impure; but he is not just impure in a standard kind of way. There's different levels of ritual impurity, the greatest of which is that of a corpse, a dead person. It is known as "avi avot ha tuma,"—the grandfather, so to speak, of all forms of ritual impurities.
A corpse confers such a degree of ritual impurity that if a corpse is in a tent, everything in the tent, even things which aren't touching the corpse, become impure. There's only one other thing, in all of human experience, that has that same degree of ritual impurity and it is a metzora—a live metzora. Somebody afflicted with tzara'at has the same law; if he goes in a tent, everything in the tent becomes 'tamei'. He too, is an "avi avot ha-tuma," so to speak, a primary source of ritual of purity.
There seems to be some connecting point between a corpse, somebody who is dead, and a metzora. Indeed, if you think about the physical symptoms of the metzora, an unnatural bleaching of the skin…think about when a person's skin is white, it's when the blood drains from his 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 tzara'at in the five books of Moses, it was actually, Moses' sister, Miriam.Speaking about Miriam, Aharon says, "al na tehi k’meit". “Please don't leave her in this state, as if she is dead.” There's something about tzara'at that seems to have a close kinship with death itself. How are we to understand why that is? Is it just because the metzora kind of looks like a corpse, it's whitish? Or, is there something more fundamental going on? Something about a metzora that really is dead in some way?
And finally, one last clue to try to understand what these laws in tzara'at are really all about. We need to look at this strange purification procedure for a metzora. This really, really odd procedure…the key to figuring out its meaning may come from asking ourselves: where have we heard all of this before?
If you listen very carefully to the way in which a metzora becomes pure, you will notice that all of the strange laws are actually patterned after something else that happened before in the Torah. What does this remind you of?
Biblical Connections to the Metzora Purification RitualsSo let's take a quick look at some of these laws. In the purification procedure for the metzora, there were two birds, one that's left alive and is cast out on 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. As part of the purification procedure, the kohen takes a little piece of cedar wood, the live bird, a scarlet thread, and a plant called a hyssop, and dips them in the blood of the dead bird. At the end of this purification process, the metzora can come back into the camp, but he still has to wait outside his home for seven whole days.
When else do we have a process involving wood, hyssop, this blood, this being that would live, this being that would die, when afterwards there's a seven day period and something has to be kept outside of the house? When else do we encounter all of this?
I'll give you a little hint. When the Torah talks about the malady of tzara'at, it refers to it as a "nega"—nun, gimmel, ayin—a plague. Do you know that there's only one other time in the entire five books of Moses that the word “nega” ever appears? Where's the only other “nun-gimmel-ayin”, in the Torah?
Exodus 11:1, "vayomer HaShem el Moshe," God said to Moses, "od nega echad avi al Mitzraim," one more plague I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, the plague of the killing of the firstborn.
Strange. It's the only other 'nega' in the Torah. In some way, was what God inflicted upon the Egyptians that night a form of tzara'at? We talked before about the connections between tzara'at and death. This night, what was the tenth plague all about? It was about a kind of death that would miraculously come and afflict the firstborn.
Let's go on, read a little bit further in the tenth plague. "Yishalach etchem mi-zeh," 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 ha-tzipor ha-chaya": the live bird gets sent out on the face of the field. After the tenth plague, the Jews were sent out into the desert. The Jewish firstborn lived that night, but their identical firstborn died. One bird went to life, one bird went to death.
What happens to that bird that dies in the tzara'at purification procedure? The blood goes into water. Chillingly, the death of the Egyptian firstborn in the tenth plague is just a foreshadow of the death of the entire army of Egypt, of the splitting of the sea.That's what happened in the first plague, when miraculously the Nile turned to blood. That’s what happened at the splitting of the sea when Egyptians died in the water.
The tzara'at purification procedure involves a little piece of cedar wood that gets dipped in blood. Wood with blood on it: yes, of course! Painted with what? With an 'ezov', with that same hyssop plant. That’s what you dipped in the blood to paint the doorpost. And one more time in the metzora offering, that same plant gets dipped in blood. And the seven day waiting period of the metzora when he can't be in his house? After the Pesach offering, there’s a seven-day waiting period, too. too: chametz is banished from the house, but can come back in after the seven days.
The Meaning Behind the Biblical Purification ProcessAs it happens, we weren't the first people to see these correspondences between the Pesach offering and the metzora's offering. It's almost as if the metzora offering is a mini Korban Pesach.
The Ramban says this. Nahmanides, the famous Medieval commentator, in a little comment tucked away at the end of many paragraphs when he was talking about the metzora. He says, "and it seems to me that all of these laws sure sound like the Pesach offering.” But what does it mean? Why? What does the Torah mean to teach us by constructing the purification process with the metzora in a way that models it after the Pesach offering? Why?
We'll come back next week and try to explore that very question.