Vayikra (Lev) 12:1-15:33
This week’s parasha deals with what appears to be an archaic and somewhat superstitious set of rituals. It describes what is to be done when a person has a certain type of skin condition or even a mold in their home or on their possessions. There is examination by a kohen, a period of separation, sacrifices and eventual restoration. It seems a very odd thing to require such elaborate ritual for a disease or natural phenomenon over which a person apparently has no control.
The last statement, according to Torah and Jewish tradition, in not entirely accurate. Vayikra 14:34 says, “When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will place a tzaria affliction upon a house...” This verse indicates that it is YHVH Himself who causes the tzaria affliction. What exactly are tzaraas afflictions? They are afflictions that can affect either a person (ch 13) or property (ch 14). And they are of a spiritual nature. Traditionally, tzaraas afflictions are physical manifestations of spiritual problems. That is why it is an issue for the kohanim and not a physician and there are no prayers for healing. Healing only comes when the root problem or rebellion or sin has been taken care of. Traditionally, these sins have included slander (primary cause), bloodshed, false oaths, sexual immorality, pride, robbery and selfishness.
As one looks at the list there is a common thread to all of them. Except for slander, they are sins that either can be committed in secret which no one will ever find out or sins in the heart, which can be hidden behind a pious facade. Because of this, they will go unpunished by the community and the individual involved will continue in his destructive wickedness. Until G-d strikes him with a tzaria affliction. It is an outward sign of inward or hidden sin. First, it may affect his home. At this point he has the first opportunity to go through the process of repentance with some minor inconvenience and home repair. If not, then his home and his belongings will be destroyed. If he still refuses to repent, it will afflict his body. If he repents, he will bear some of the scars of his rebellion but he will be allowed to return to the community. If he still refuses and remains afflicted he will live out his days in isolation, crying “unclean, unclean” to all he sees, a sad testimony of his stubborn rebellion.
G-d is gracious in allowing so many opportunities for repentance but the integrity of the community comes first. G-d understands the nature of sin and how is easily spreads if left unchecked. Outward sin is taken care of by the various punishments described elsewhere in the Torah. Inward or hidden sin is brought to light through the tzaria affliction so it can be brought out in the open and dealt with by the community. Israel is a holy community designed for regular people to encourage each other in righteousness. If slander, pride or hidden injury is left unchecked or unpunished, the holiness of the community is compromised and the infection is likely to spread.
The process of restoration is one we can learn from even though the actual afflictions appear to be tied to the land and the Temple. First, the symptoms appear. Something is spiritually wrong with the person. They go to the kohen for examination and the kohen verifies that it is a tzaraas and not a pimple or a rash. the person is then isolated form the rest of the community for a week. This gives them the opportunity for introspection and repentance. It also puts a immediate stop to the spread of the affliction to the rest of the community. We all know how easy it is to share gossip or how destructive a prideful person can be. Isolation gives everyone the opportunity to repent and forgive. After the week is up he comes back to the kohen. If he has repented the tzaraas will have healed. At that point he shaves and offers sacrifice and comes into the camp. But it’s not over yet. Repentance is more of a process that an event. Another week will pass when the person is not allowed in his tent and then he presents himself the the priest again for examination. If the repentance was true, he will remain clean. At this point he must shave again, immerse himself to show his change of status and then offer a sacrifice for his guilt. That concludes the formal process. But for several months as his hair grows, he will be reminded of the ordeal and he will always have the scar to motivate him to remain pure, lest another eruption send him through the process again. And, of course, he has the community, who all know what is happening, to keep him on the straight and narrow.
While we do not have tzaraas afflictions to warn us of hidden sin in the community, we can learn a lot from the process of restoration. We need to take the integrity of the community as seriously as G-d does. Yahushua and Rabbi Sha’ul gave us some guidelines as well (Matt 18:16, 17, I Cor 5:5, Titus 3:10). We must confront a brother with a problem, one on one. If they repent, then begin the process of restoration. If repentance does not happen, then take another, and if that doesn’t work, then the community needs to be involved. If that does not bring restoration then the person must be cast out. We have an obligation , particularly those of us in leadership positions, to maintain the integrity of the holy community and halt the spread of sin before it’s destructive power can accomplish haSatan’s aims in our lives and congregations. It is not easy and it needs to be done with love and discretion but at times it will need to be done. And by taking the time for restoration and going through the proper steps, both the individual and the community will come out stronger in the end.
This week we being a discussion of some things that are really removed from our experience. Here the Torah gives rules regarding the cleansing of people, clothing and even houses from ‘tzaria’ afflictions. Various translations refer to these as leprosy, mold and mildew. The reality of it is, however, that these were progressive opportunities G-d gave the people to repent and heal their relationship with Him.
One of the reactions people have always had to misfortune is to wonder what they are doing wrong in their lives to make them ‘deserving’ of such ‘bad luck’. To those of us who take Torah seriously, there is a basic understanding of this cause and effect relationship. After all, does not G-d Himself promise great blessing for obedience and discipline for disobedience? It only makes sense that if things are going wrong, there must be discipline involved. Unfortunately the problem of evil occurrence is a bit more complicated (my tape on Understanding G-d in the Intro course deals with this) but in the case of our parasha, we are faced with a real cause and effect reality.
The blessings and the curses are primarily for the nation but these particular afflictions are directed at the individual Israelite. It is his house, his clothes, his body that suffers the effects of this discipline. And as you look at it, it is a wonderful display of the mercy of YHVH. The affliction begins on a wall in the house. If the individual examines his life and repents, he merely has a hole in the wall to patch up. If not, it progresses to the point where his home is reduced to rubble and carried outside the camp. Then it comes on his clothes until even his garments must be destroyed. Finally, the affliction comes on his body. If he does not seek to fix the cause of the problem, which is spiritual, he is physically removed from the community. The unrepentant individual ends up dressed in rags outside the the camp, alone and homeless.
What could be so serious that would lead to such a result? Traditionally it has been understood that it was sins of the tongue that led to this disaster. Ecclesiasties says that “all the labor of man if for his mouth”. This is certainly true of spiritual labor. Ya’akov tells us that if a man learns to control his tongue he will be perfect. G-d wanted us to understand the value of our speech, both for good or evil. He wanted us to understand that a community is which no one controls their tongues will not be a community for long. A close knit group can be easily destroyed by a careless word, whether that word is true or not. There are two types of speech transgressions. There is the familiar ‘lashon hara’ which is making derogatory or damaging statements about someone, even if those statements are true. The second is ‘rechilus’ which is telling someone else something negative that another did to him. It is easy to fall into, sometimes we do it without thinking. But it is too destructive to treated lightly. That is why these afflictions existed. There were G-d’s way of reminding us of the destructive power we hold in our tongues, and a merciful method by which we can be prodded to change our behavior.
This weeks parasha includes things that are a mystery to most people. And most of the mystery relates to these mysterious afflictions and why these afflictions make an individual ‘unclean’. If they were simply diseases or afflictions then some of the directives make no sense. Why is person clean when completely covered with the disease? Why remove the furniture from a home to put it under quarantine, wouldn’t the furniture be included? There is something else at work here.
The first thing we need to recognize is that these are physical manifestations of spiritual activity. In Hebrew thinking there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual as there is in Greek thought. Clean hands equal a pure heart in Hebrew thinking, the physical affects the spiritual and the spiritual affects the physical.
Understanding that, we need to know what ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are. In our general understanding, these things refer to ‘purity’ and dirty is bad, clean is good. We cannot, however, put these things on a simple moral plane. That would make childbirth ‘bad’ even though it is a command to be fruitful and multiply. What we need to do is understand Tehara (clean) and Tamay (unclean). These things do not have to do with good and evil but with the presence or absence of G-d.
When G-d made the world, it was originally chaotic, formless and empty. G-d then set about injecting His presence and order or this chaotic world, separating and defining things. The underlying nature of the world is chaotic and it is only G-d’s imposed order that holds it together. That order, however, is not equally distributed throughout the world. What make things ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are choices that lead to the revelation or establishment of more or less of G-d’s order. Mamonidies explained it by saying that good choices move us closer to G-d and bad choices have the opposite effect. In the terms we are now using, Tahara is a state of more order, of being closer to G-d and Tamay is a state of increasing chaos that results in moving away from G-d and His order. The highest state of tamay/chaos is a dead body, it has no sustaining energy or order and will soon decay which is the complete separation of the molecules into a useless, chaotic state.
The metzorah, someone with a tzaria affliction, has made a choice that has moved him into chaos and that chaos is manifested in his body or his home. A woman becomes unclean after childbirth for one of two reasons. First, because the present circumstances surrounding childbirth with the blood and pain are not the simple order G-d intended and/or because she has created a spiritual vacuum within herself when the baby is born. So we see that a state of Tamay is not necessary a position of ‘spiritual’ deficiency but a loss of life or order in our lives or in the world. Our goal, therefore, is to make choices that move us closer to G-d and His order and when we contact the realm of chaos, to recognize it and move past it as quickly as possible.
This parasha details the tzaria afflictions of the body, clothing and home. These afflictions are physical manifestations of hidden spiritual problems. When one has some unleanliness or sin that he is not taking care of through repentance and the other means necessary, these plagues come upon him to remind him. He is separated from the rest of the camp so he has time for introspection and does not spread his sin to other members of the community. If he takes care of it, he is healed and comes back into the community. If not, he remains unclean and outside the camp where everyone knows and can beware of his unrepentant heart and destructive attitudes and behavior.
The actual manifestation on the skin is a red soreness or raw skin surrounded by a white area. The priest is to examine him and take the appropriate action. There is, however, an interesting twist to this. If the affliction cover his whole body, from head to foot, the priest will examine him and then pronounce him clean, as long as there is no raw flesh (Vay 13:12-14). Now you would think that a person who is wholly covered would be the greatest sinner and be the most unclean but the opposite is true. Why would this be so?
First, why would it break out all over the body? It would seem that a preponderance of sin would result in such a case. If such a person repents properly, the vestiges of the sin and affliction remain, the consequences are constantly visible, but the uncleanness is gone. We seem to think, no doubt influenced by ‘have it all for nothing’ Christianity that when we repent all the consequences of our sin disappear. That is not true most of the time. The adulterer who has ruined the trust of his spouse does not automatically get that trust back and if he contracted some disease during his philandering, that consequence remains. The repentant homosexual may still have AIDS. The person who wastes money may still have debt and ruined credit. The consequences of our sin remain, they don’t magically disappear but in the area of our relationship with God, we will clean.
There is more, however, and it has to do with the principle of uniformity, or in a behavioral sense, consistency. A person whose flesh is untouched by Tzaria or one whose skin is all white is consistent, there is no abnormality or difference. A person who has a lesion in his flesh is no longer uniform, there is an abnormality. We are to be consistent. “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common, or what fellowship does light have with darkness, or harmony between Messiah and Belial....Therefore come out from them and be separate says YHVH, touch no unclean thing and I will receive you...” II Cor 6:14-17 We are not to be a mixture of things, we are to be consistent throughout. In Revelation Y’shua says that we must be either hot or cold, not lukewarm. In the Damascus Document (DSS) the scroll community is admonished to differentiate between the defiled and the pure and teach the difference between the holy and profane. These statements are followed by an admonition to keep the Holy days and Shabbat, to love our brothers properly and not to defile the Ruach haKodesh. YHVH wants consistency in our Torah observance and it is our duty to maximize our consistency. We must do everything we can in our homes, our vocations and our communities to enable us to conform as closely as possible to His truth and Torah. Sacrifices are necessary. Y’shua said that if we love our families or our possessions more than him, the living Torah, we are not worthy. We can not be of two minds, our eye must be single. The person afflicted with tzaria may have had to ditch his best clothes or even lose his house and remove himself from friends and family in order to deal with his sin and bring his life in line with God’s will. We should be willing to do the same.
We often teach from the Torah and while our knowledge and insight into it may make for some interesting teaching, practical application in everyday life is not always obvious or even included. We often spend our time studying, filling our mind with information about theology and history that really has no impact on our quality of life here and now. And too often we take that information and use it as a club to beat people who don’t see our ideas the same way we do. If we win the argument, so what? If someone agrees that shark is not kosher or Y’shua is YHVH or headcoverings are mandatory for all women of God, so what? Will this knowledge or belief ‘save’ you? Will it make you healthier or wiser? Will it have any impact whatsoever on your life outside of your small religious group or Internet chat room?
Tzaria is a parasha dedicated to the practical. If we learn it’s lessons, it will help us to live longer, healthier lives. To find that, we must dig a little deeper than the norm. Tzaria is not leprosy, it is not a ‘contagious’ disease in the sense that it is transmitted by a bacteria or virus. It is, however, contagious in other ways which we will get into soon. A tzaria affliction is an outward manifestation of an inward problem. Tradition says it is the sin of slander, it may be a variety of things. What I want to focus on is the idea that our lifestyles and the way we think about them will have physical manifestations and those manifestations are obvious to us today. And it is contagious in that an individual or society can impart it’s negative attributes to other people who will then begin to show the same symptoms.
The religion of Moshe was an eastern religion with an eastern mindset. Eastern religious have understood for years the necessity for a holistic approach to ‘faith’. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, being western religions, have emphasized belief and knowledge at the expense and neglect of the physical and mental person. Because in western religion, it is belief that ‘saves’ you from ‘hell’ which is also something one has to believe in, study and ‘good works’ as a result of that study are paramount and the individual is minimized and neglected. If we do not have our prayer time or study time, we are chastised. When was the last time a western religious leader chastised someone for not exercising? For eating the wrong things-too much kosher junk food?
I will point to two central manifestations or tzaria symptoms in our society, manifestations of problems that in and of themselves lead to other problems. The two are fat and stress. Both are the result of one thing-consumerism. We eat the things we do because we have neither the time or ability to produce or cook healthy foods. From the times of the earliest civilizations, western or otherwise, only the wealthy could eat a large variety or quantity of foods and as people aspired to be wealthier ( better consumers in an urban society) the ability to eat went with it. Western societies are the wealthiest and we have the fattest populations. Food is not sustenance in consumer societies, it has status attached to it. The result of all this food in ever larger portions with little nutritional value is fat and a body full of unnatural chemicals. We all know that fat leads to a variety of illnesses from heart disease and diabetes to back problems and clogged arteries. All because we have moved food from it’s role of sustenance to so much more.
The second is somewhat related-stress. Some people eat when they are stressed (comfort food) and become fat. But stress has it’s own set of problems. Why are we stressed? Two reasons-consumerism and interpersonal relationships. How does consumerism stress us? Because we are constantly worried about money and the things we don’t have or the work necessary to get them. When we engage in the frenzied lifestyle our society tells us we must in order to be successful and we spend all our time working or studying or doing good things, we don’t have time to eat right or exercise or learn to control our minds and the situation only gets worse. Our blood pressure goes up, we get back pain and other problems from the constantly tight muscles in our bodies as a result of the stress and all this accumulates and leads to weakened immune systems and disease. I would postulate that one cannot be ‘spiritually healthy’ while manifesting any of the tzaria symptoms. Exercise and meditation are no less worthy ‘religious’ pursuits than study and good works and we need to make time for both in order to be well balanced and healthy-mentally, physically and spiritually.
Did you ever notice that animals in the wild don’t usually get sick? Almost all animals die from external factors, exposure or being eaten, and not from internal factors, heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc. Physically, they are made the same way yet they do not have the stresses created by the mind or the opportunity to engage in an unhealthy society created by our minds. I am not saying that the mind is bad, our ability to think is a great thing. But it is like fire. It can be very productive or very, very destructive. For those of us in western societies, it have been mostly destructive both individually and sociologically. We can learn a lot from the eastern understanding of the mind and body and ways to develop both in healthy ways. Then we can live like Moshe who was healthy until the day he climbed the mountain to end his journey.