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Torah Sparks

APRIL 25, 2009

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 13:40 – 14:32 (Etz Hayim p. 657; Hertz p. 464)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9 – 15 Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

When a woman gives birth, she enters a state of ritual impurity. When the baby is a boy, she is in a state of niddah (separation) for seven days, and she remains ritually impure for 33 days. Following the birth of a girl the corresponding periods are two weeks and 66 days. At the end of this time she is to bring a burnt offering and a purification offering and she is restored to a state of ritual purity.

God instructs Moses and Aaron about tzara’at, a scaly skin disease traditionally translated as leprosy but clearly not the condition known today as Hansen’s disease. When a person developed a rash or other signs of skin disease, the priest was to examine it and determine if it was in fact tzara’at and the person was therefore ritually impure. If the diagnosis was uncertain, the priest was to quarantine the person for seven days and then examine him again. If the diagnosis was still uncertain he was to be isolated for another seven days; if the rash had not spread he was declared ritually pure. Once someone was determined to have tzara’at, he was declared ritually impure and sent to dwell outside the camp.

Tzara’at could affect fabrics as well as people. Once a priest had determined that an article of cloth or leather was affected it was to be burned.

God gives Moses instructions for the rites of purification and the sacrifices that the m’tzora (person afflicted with tzara’at) must bring in order to complete the process of ritual purification. Provisions are made so a poor person can bring less costly sacrifices.

God also tells Moses that once the people have settled in the land of Canaan a person may discover some sort of plague on the walls of his home. A priest must examine it; if he declares that the house is afflicted with tzara’at, the affected stones must be removed and replaced. If the tzara’at returns, the house must be demolished. If it does not return, the priest will perform the specified ritual of purification.

Finally, God instructs Moses about the impurity resulting from discharges from the genital organs – both those that are the result of disease and the normal discharges of semen and menstruation – and the process of purification for each.

1. Rubber and Glue

As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out “Impure! Impure!” (Leviticus 13:45)

  1. Announcing that he is impure, so that people should withdraw from him. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. The person had to call out “Impure! Impure!” to make his plight known to the public so that they would seek mercy (pray) for him, and similarly anyone who experiences misfortune should publicize it so that people will seek mercy for him. (Talmud Sotah 32b)
  3. This can be read as “Impure” an impure person says about others. That is, a person who finds fault with others is really projecting his own faults and imperfections onto others. As the sages have said (Kiddushin 70a), “One criticizes in others the fault that he himself possesses.” (Shnei Lukhot HaBrit (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz), 1556-1630, Europe and Israel)
  4. When you see a fault in others, turn the thinking and analysis to yourself. If you don’t have the entire fault, you probably have some of it. And even if the weakness never manifests itself in action, you have most likely pondered doing what you are criticizing. And even if you never pondered it, you almost certainly saw someone else doing it and were pleased. (Mikhtav M’Eliyahu (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler), 1892-1953, Lithuania, England, and Israel)
  5. Rabbi Nathan said: Reproach not your neighbor for a blemish that is yours. (Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)

Sparks for Discussion

Do you agree that the faults we are most likely to see in others are the ones we ourselves possess? Why do you think that is? How can this insight help us? Should someone who is imperfect criticize that imperfection in others? Should parents tell their children, “Do as I say, not as I do?” How should parents who once used drugs, for example, talk to their children about this issue?

2. The High and the Lucky

If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be purified. (Leviticus 14:3-4)

  1. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: There are seven things for which tzara’at comes – for lashon hara, for murder, for false oaths, for sexual immorality, for a haughty spirit, for theft, and for selfishness. (Arakhin 16a)
  2. Why are the tallest of the tall and the lowest of the low – the cedar and the hyssop – used in the ritual cleansing of a leper? Because when a man exalted himself like a cedar, he was smitten with leprosy; and when he humbled himself like hyssop, he was healed with hyssop. (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3)
  3. The cedar tree is the symbol of pride and might, while the hyssop is a lowly bush, symbol of modesty. The reason for bringing the two, says Rashi, is that one of the causes of tzara’at is haughtiness. Every commandment must be done deliberately, with the person knowing what he is doing and why. The only exception is modesty, because for a person to plan to be modest is in itself haughtiness. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotsk, 1787-1859, Poland)
  4. Every sin requires some type of action: a movement of the hand or of the leg, an opening of the mouth – except for the sin of haughtiness. A person can lie totally motionless and think to himself: “I am one of the great people in the world.” (Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz, 1726-1791, Poland)
  5. If the purpose of this ceremony of purification is to have the leper abandon arrogance, what is the function of the cedar wood, which symbolizes pride? To teach the leper the proper attitude. Humility and submission do not mean that the body must be bowed. They imply that inner spiritual humility or contriteness which can be present even while the body stands erect and unbowed... The cedar wood is used to teach the sinner that he need not think he is required to go about bent over and cringing in abject humility. He can stand erect as a cedar and still be as “bent” and humble in spirit as hyssop. (Avnei Ezel (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland))
  6. What exactly is humility? Does it mean speaking of ourselves as unaccomplished, even when this is not the case?... In truth, humility is not difficult to define (though it is hard to embody). It means not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have achieved less than we have. And it implies judging ourselves not in comparison to others, but in light of our capabilities, and the tasks we believe God has set for us on earth... [T]he very capabilities that can make a person most proud... are also those that should be most humbling. If we have greater wisdom, then we also have a greater responsibility to bring people to understanding and wisdom. If we have wealth, then we have a greater responsibility to help those in need... Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done also serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume I, You Shall Be Holy, p. 212)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbis understand tzara’at not as an ordinary disease but as punishment for sin. The Talmud lists seven sins that bring on tzara’at. While lashon hara (speaking negatively about others) is the best known, the list also includes haughtiness. What attitudes and characteristics define haughtiness? Which ones define humility? Avnei Ezel makes the point that humility does not mean cowering and cringing. How can we learn to avoid arrogance and to cultivate a healthy humility?

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