Rejoining The Community
What Does The Passover Sacrifice Teach Us About The Metzora?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
There are curious parallels in the BIble between the Passover sacrifice and the purification of the metzora. But how does the Passover sacrifical offering shape our understanding of purity?
In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman picks up on last year's Tazria and Metzora videos, which explained the connections between the metzora purification process and the korban pesach. Here, he argues that only through the two processes can we become fully alive and part of the community.
See the prequel to this video: The Bizarre Purification Of The Metzora
Hi this is Rabbi David Fohrman and you are watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Tazria Metzora–Metzora. I want to do something a little bit different with you this year; I want to actually pick up on the themes that I introduced to you in last year's Parshiyot of Tazria and Metzora. If Parshat Tazria last year is video 1, if Parshat Metzora last year is video 2, then the video you're watching right now is kind of a Part 3 of that series. I'll just summarize those ideas very, very quickly here, although I do encourage you to go back and watch those earlier ones.
What Connects the Passover Sacrifice to Taharat HaMetzora?I suggested to you last year that if you look at the very strange rituals that comprise the Taharat HaMetzora – the purification process for this person afflicted with a leprous kind of disease – you'll find that they bear an eerie resemblance to a ritual that you've seen before in the Torah, the Pesach offering, the offering of the paschal lamb. There's the wood of the doorway, there's the blood, there's the same plants – the hyssop plant, the eizov. It's all there, and I suggested to you that it seems at some level as if the metzora's purification process is almost like a personal version of the Pesach offering.
I suggested to you that the Torah deals with the metzora as if he is a kind of living dead, a sort of cross between death and life. And I further suggested that the way to understand that might be that there's sort of two parts to a person, the regular individual part of the person, and then the larger communal part of a person. And it might be possible to have one part of you dead and one part of you alive. As an individual you're still alive, but that part of you that relates to a community– that part of you is dead. And so, in a sense, you really are walking death.
The metzora faces the task of rehabilitating, reawakening the communal part of himself, and the vehicle for doing that is the experience of the Pesach offering. The Pesach offering was when we as a nation came to be a community in the first place, and now, to rejoin the community, this person must reenact his own personal version of this. That's the basic idea that I suggested to you last year.
Now I want to take these ideas a little bit further with you, because I think that the Taharat HaMetzora – the metzora's purification procedure – and Korban Pesach are actually connected in an even more precise way that helps us see both the Pesach offering and the purification of the metzora in an interesting, new light.
The Story Behind the Passover Sacrificial OfferingLet's start with the word "negah". In Leviticus, tzara'at is described as a negah, as a kind of affliction or a plague. And this is actually the second time in the Torah the word negah appears; what was the first time? It was back in Exodus: "Vayomer Hashem el Moshe od negah echad avi al Pharaoh" – one more plague, one more affliction, God said to Moses, I will bring upon Pharaoh. It was the tenth plague. The tenth plague was the very first negah in the Torah and now there's a negah called tzara'at. Isn't that interesting? Could there be something to this connection? Might it be on some level that tzara'at doesn't just appear for the first time in Leviticus, but could the first example of tzara'at have somehow been in that tenth plague? Od negah echad avi al Mitzrayim – I'll bring one last affliction on Egypt. Could that affliction in some way have been tzara'at itself?
So your first impulse is to say that's crazy. In the tenth plague they didn't experience tzara'at, they didn't experience leprosy, they experienced death; the firstborn died. What does that have to do with leprosy? What does that have to do with tzara'at? Well, it might have something very deep indeed to do with tzara'at.
Exactly how did they die and what is the significance of their deaths? Now I talked about some of these ideas with you in this year's Pesach course. You'll find it in the fourth video of the Pesach course. Let's go for a moment to Parsha Tazria, the Parsha that actually begins to talk about the laws of Tzara'at. Interestingly, Parsha Tazria starts talking about something that seems to have nothing to do with tzara'at: the laws of childbirth. And then after about eight verses, as if it's the most natural thing in the world, the Torah transitions out of the laws of childbirth and into the laws of tzara'at, this leprosy-like affliction. What could the laws of birth possibly have to do with the laws of tzara'at? Why are they juxtaposed?
The answer to that might lie in the only example that we ever have in the Torah of a particular person actually being afflicted with Tzara'at; Miriam later on in the Book of Numbers. Aaron, when talking to Moses about the affliction that their sister has been struck with, says a very curious thing. He says: “Al nah tehi kameit” – let her not be like someone who is dead. But what kind of dead person? He continues: “Asher betzeito merechem imo” – let her not be like an infant who coming out of her mother's womb; “Vaye'achel chatzi besaro” – is a stillborn. Very interesting. So the metzora is not just like someone who died, he's like someone who never made it out of the womb alive.
The Deeper Meaning of Korban PesachAnd now, let's consider what happened in Egypt that night of the tenth plague. We know that the process of coming out of Egypt was kind of like a birth experience. And here I take you back to last year's Pesach video. Look back to the imagery of Korban Pesach itself: there's this offering that needs to be eaten with the head of the animal bunched up over its knees, suspiciously like the fetal position. There needs to be blood painted upon the door on the lintel upon both doorways, on the Saf – the threshold as well. All four parts of the door are covered with blood, a completely bloody doorway. And we stand behind that doorway in the homes and we wait and we wait and we wait all night long; “Loh teitzu ish mipetach beito ad boker” – no one is allowed to come through the doorway until the morning. And in the morning we rushed through bechipazon. Doesn't it sound like birth? It's like waiting and waiting and waiting and then rushing through and being born. There was a community born that night, the community of Israel; a new thing was born. You aren't just a bunch of families anymore: there's a new level to your existence, you're a nation now, you're a community.
And of course, now think of Egypt. According to the verse there was no home among Egypt that didn't have someone dead. Well, if the homes were like the womb for Israel, then the homes were like the womb for Egypt too. Someone died in those homes; Egypt was like a stillborn that night. Because what does it mean to be a community? The links that help a community survive over time are actually the firstborn, the child leaders; they're the ones that help transfer the culture of the community from one generation to another, they're the bridge between one generation and another. It was that bridge that Egypt lost that night, and without them, without the firstborn, the society itself begins to become degraded, begins to become stillborn.
All of which leads me to some speculation that I want to share with you. This is only speculation, but I think it's a very fascinating possibility. As a community I've argued to you that Egypt and Israel went through a birth process that night, a successful birth process for Israel, an unsuccessful one for Egypt. But maybe it wasn't just at the communal level that happened, but at the individual level, maybe that's how the firstborn died? Maybe that's how our firstborn lives?
Let me show you what I mean by reading to you a very curious verse. After the plague that smites the Egyptian firstborn but saves the Israelite firstborn, God says to Moses; “Kadeish li kol bechor peter kol rechem” – sanctify for me all firstborn of Israel. Then God provides a rationale: because; “Li hu” – these firstborn, God says, they're Mine. God acts as if the firstborn all of a sudden are His. So the standard way to understand that is, well, they're sort of, kind of, like God's, because you know, God could have killed all the firstborn last night; they were kind of saved by God, so I guess it's sort of like God owns them now. I mean, that's one way of saying it.
But there might be a deeper way in which it's true that the firstborn now belong to God. Because let's go back to that stillborn idea, the notion that Egypt experienced a negah, that they were in a way the original metzora that night, the original stillborn. What could that mean? Well, there's a communal sense in which it's true, but maybe there's also an individual sense in which that's true. Maybe for all the firstborn among Israel, what they experienced that night was a kind of retroactive validation of their own births. It's like all the firstborn of both Egypt and Israel would go through this moment when their own moments of birth were being called into question, retroactively. Were they born or not?
If you survived that night, your birth succeeded.It's like your birth was just validated at the hand of God. So of course God has the right to say “Kol bechor li hu” – all of your firstborn, they're Mine now. But what if you didn't survive that night like the firstborn of Egypt, what would have happened to them? It's like their original moments of birth when everything that might have happened, even decades ago, was somehow invalidated – retroactively invalidated. It's like you never made it out of the womb alive, you never got born.
And, as crazy as this sounds, here's a verse that seems to support the idea. When God warns Pharaoh about the onset of the plague of the smiting of the firstborn, the language that God uses is: “U'meit kol bechor”. Now, how do you translate those words? We usually translate them to mean “all firstborn will die”. But that's actually not what the Hebrew says. Because “all firstborn will die” in Hebrew would be “veyamut kol bechor”.
“U'meit kol bechor” means something else. As strange as it sounds, it means “and all firstborn are dead”. It's a subtle point but the verse is not describing the verb of dying, it's just saying that they're dead. How could that be? How could they just be dead without dying, now? Well, maybe they didn't die now, maybe their moments of birth were invalidated and so now they're dead – retroactively. They never made it out of the womb. In this new history their existence as living beings has been erased.
Understanding Korban Pesach TodayAnd now, perhaps, it makes perfect sense that the template for Taharat HaMetzora – for the purification of the metzora – should come from Korban Pesach. Korban Pesach – the Pesach offering – was the device through which our firstborn escaped the fate of being stillborn. Through the offering of Korban Pesach they joined with the community and as that community was born, dedicated to the Almighty, so they too, as individuals, were born along with it. Their own births were validated. And now that's what the metzora must do as well.
The communal part of this person has died, it's like it was never there, it's like it was stillborn, that communal part of them. How do they reinvigorate that part of themselves that has so profoundly withered away? By going through their own mini-version of the Pesach offering, by re-attaching themselves to the joyous birth of the community. Then they, too, can finally become true communal beings again, no longer perched between death and life, they can finally be fully alive.