Parashat Tazri`a/M’tzora (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33
The strange phenomenon called “tzara`at” – a condition that creates scabs and sores and discoloration of skin, clothes and walls of houses – is the main subject of the two Torah readings of this Shabbat (- sometimes these portions are each read on a separate Shabbat). The Torah devotes detailed discussion to its description and its consequences for ritual purity and impurity and its implications for social integration or isolation. (On the topic of social isolation and confinement, see Sparks for 2016.)
Whatever this mysterious condition is, it is labeled a “nega” in Hebrew, commonly translated as “an affliction.” We should pay close attention to this word. It is used by God to refer to the last and most terrible plague that afflicted Egypt, the death of the first-born. (Ex. 11:1) So it conveys a sense of horror and dread. As Jacob Milgrom, perhaps the greatest modern commentator on Leviticus has pointed out, the person struck by this affliction seemed to be turned into a walking corpse, an image of death.
Yet the word, when examined for its root semantic meaning and its use elsewhere in the Torah, conveys a more complicated set of associations. The word’s three-letter stem -nun-gimmel-`ayin - can also mean “to touch” (- e.g., Gen. 26:11) or “to arrive at, to reach” (- e.g., Gen. 28:12) Indeed, the meaning “affliction” is closely related to these other two meanings.
In our present experience, the word “touch” carries mixed significances. We yearn to be able to reach out and touch other people, whether casually or out of deep caring. We are so conscious of how the deprivation of even casual touching can be an affliction, a sore lack. But we are also aware that this deprivation is necessary precisely because of the possibly deadly effect that touch can have on us when it is a virus that is touching us, when we are touched by death. Touch can be gentle and yet it can be fatal.
The affliction of tzara`at touches a person precisely in the realm of touch, itself. It afflicts surfaces that we touch, and it most directly afflicts the tissue that touches and is sensitive to touch, our skin. This most fragile and sensitive of membranes is exquisitely attuned to the comforts and the tortures of touch. Just a slight touch of this plague and our entire world is overturned – access to our sanctuary is foreclosed and we are sent into quarantine.
And the meaning of “arrival” is similarly colored darkly. We consider how the circumstances of life may come to their conclusion, when our time has arrived, when we have reached our end. Or, when “fate” has caught up with us. But is it just blind fate? Here we arrive at still another association with this word. It is closely entwined with notions of desert (- to deserve something or not). When we have succeeded, we say that we have “arrived.” We claim our entitlements as “coming to us.” But is what “comes to us” always “what’s coming to us”? In contemporary Hebrew, as well as English, we sometimes hear of some misfortune that befalls some other person and we remark, “He got what was coming to him.” But we are not so sure that this applies to us, too.
In a time of plague, we struggle with explaining how we arrived at this situation. In dismay, we say that the affliction should have stayed “over there” but it somehow reached us, an unwelcome arrival. Sometimes, in self-delusion, we seek to place blame somewhere – usually not at our own doorstep, but somewhere else. We have convinced ourselves that we were in control, but now we have learned that other forces, forces that we never noticed or took seriously, were drawing near to us all this time, and they have finally arrived, touching down upon us. Could we have noticed? Should we? It is not so helpful to question the past, but we may ask how to go forward from here.
Some afflictions are final and fatal: The affliction in Egypt was devastating. But the afflictions described in our Torah portions are all portrayed as eventually remediable and as temporary. They are meant to set our skin crawling – not to destroy all of us, but, hopefully to touch us, to warn us that a point of reckoning has arrived.
And in our own day we are touched by an affliction of both sorts – fatal for so many! – and a warning for those remaining.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein