Skip to content

Parashat Metzora/Shabbat haGadol 5776 — 04/16/2016

Parashat Metzora/Shabbat haGadol 5776 — 04/16/2016

Shabbat haGadol

L’ilui nishmat Leah bat Yosef A”H on her 42nd Yahrzeit

Vayikra 14:1-15:33

The portions of Tazria and Metzora are generally concerned with the concepts of tumah and taharah, generally translated as “ritual impurity” and “ritual purity” respectively. Thematically, it appears they are placed here in the Torah because the kohanim are forbidden from serving in the Temple if they are impure, and if any of the offerings becomes impure it may not be offered nor its meat eaten. Also, both kohanim and non-kohanim are forbidden from even entering the Temple complex if they are tamei. Therefore, it is important to know what makes a person tamei and how that person can be restored to a state of taharah, so that they can participate fully in the spiritual life of the community.

R. Steinsaltz points out that tumah is associated with the transition between life and death. Life is associated with taharah, and its cessation with tumah. And the more powerful the life force, the more severe the tumah:

By way of analogy, it can be said that the creation of tuma resembles the production of a magnetic field. A magnetic field is produced when a drastic change occurs in an electric field. One of the ways this can happen is when an electric current that is moving through metal suddenly stops, in which case magnetization occurs. The new phenomenon is produced at the point of change, whether it is change from one extreme to the other or a more limited change. Similarly, tuma is produced when the complete current of life within an entity is stopped, whether in its entirety or in only one respect. Take, for example, the tuma of a corpse. This tuma occurs not because the corpse is not alive, nor because it used to be alive, but because it used to be alive and then this condition suddenly stopped.

What also emerges from the notion of the connection to life and death is a principle that applies throughout the laws of tuma. The stronger the current of life, the more intense the tuma will be if and when that life is stopped and cut off. … We may not be able to explain all the minor questions of the laws of tuma and tahara, but this theory at least helps explain the overarching structure of these laws, in a general sense.

According to [the Mishnaic Order] Teharot, the most severe form of tuma is that of a corpse. This is because when a person dies, the cessation of the current of life is the most drastic cessation of tahara possible.

There is a disconnect here in R. Steinsaltz’ analogy with the electric and magnetic field, but I believe it gives us another insight into the nature of tumah. A magnetic field is caused by a change in the electric field. However, when the electric field stops changing, the magnetic field goes away (becomes zero). This is not the case for tumah. A corpse is not tamei only at the moment of death – it remains tamei until it has almost completely decomposed. If one becomes tamei from contact with a corpse, there is a specific procedure one must go through to become tahor again. In fact, that procedure requires the existence of the Temple (to prepare the ashes of the Red Heifer / Parah Adumah); since there is no Temple any more, everyone carries tumah from the dead.

The fact that a magnetic field is only created by a changing electric field indicates that in some way the magnetic field lacks the same substantial reality as the electric field. Thus, the electric field can be created by a single electrically charged particle, even if it is stationary. However, there is no magnetic analogy to a single electric charge (“no magnetic monopoles”). The simplest magnetic fields are dipole fields – like the fields we all saw in school when we put iron filings on a paper and held a magnet beneath it – the field appeared to radiate from both the north and south poles of the magnet. Since the poles are opposite, the field of one cancels out some or most of the field of the other, and the resulting field is weaker.

What we get from this analogy then, is that tumah, which is related to death, is weaker than taharah, which is related to life. Nevertheless, when we become tamei, we must get rid of the tumah. The common feature in all purification from tumah is immersion in water, specifically the water of a mikveh / ritual bath. Now water is, biologically, the womb of life. Spiritually, the absolute, unchanging basis of life is envisioned as water – a vast, unbounded ocean. Immersing in a mikveh then, is returning ourselves to the source of pure life. Life is real, death is not, in the same way that light is real, and darkness is not (even the plague of darkness, our Sages tell us, was Gd radiating a blinding light that overwhelmed the Egyptians). When we immerse ourselves in Life, Death ceases to exist, just as when we light a candle, darkness ceases to exist.

On a deeper level, we have discussed our Sages’ expression that the wicked are dead even when they are alive – they are cut off from the source of life. The righteous, on the other hand, are intimately connected to the source of life on the level of their awareness; they are as if permanently immersed in a cosmic mikveh from which position it is impossible to acquire tumah. They are therefore alive even after their bodies have been sloughed off and their souls are free.

I believe that truly to purify ourselves of tumah requires that we immerse ourselves in the ocean of Life that is at the basis of our own awareness. Our tradition tells us, for example, which animals may be eaten (it describes them as tahor) and which may not (tamei), and gives us various practices, principally prayer, to allow us to transcend the world of change and death and experience pure Life within ourselves. We have only to open ourselves up to Life in order to overcome death.

Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20

The regular Haftarah for the week tells the story of 4 Metzora’im who live outside the walls of Samaria (the capital of the Northern Kingdom, near Shechem = modern Nablus [from the Greek Neopolis = New City]). As the Torah portion states, the Metzora is to live “alone, outside the camp.” The Midrash tells us that the four men are Gechazi, Elisha’s attendant, and his 3 sons. Their tazra’at was actually a curse from Elisha, who had refused payment from Na’aman after curing his tzara’at. After Gechazi chases Na’aman down and takes a large payment for himself, Elisha curses him that he should have Na’aman’s tzara’at for the rest of his life. I don’t know why the son’s are also striken with tzara’at; I believe the Midrash explains that they should have stopped their father rather than joining and encouraging him in his actions.

In any event, the four decide to throw themselves at the mercy of the Arameans, who were besieging Samaria, reasoning that they were dead men if they stayed where they were, so the Arameans couldn’t do much worse to them. They arrive in the Aramean camp, only to find it miraculously deserted – Gd had spread a panic and the Aramean army fled back home. At first, the four metzora’im reverted to their greedy, materialistic pattern, and looted the Arameans, hiding treasures away for themselves. However, something of Gd’s intended message did get through to them, as they agree that what they were doing was not right, and they should inform the king and people of Samaria of their good fortune.

The connection to the parashah is obvious, especially in the theme of the metzora’s being a “dead man walking.” What is not clear to me is why, since they did seem to have a sincere change of heart, there is no mention of their having been healed. Perhaps their change of heart was not so sincere – they may have repented out of fear of (human) repercussions, rather than out of a deep-seated desire for a fundamental change in their life. Perhaps Elisha’s “curse” was simply a recognition that they were so steeped in materiality that they were incapable of such a fundamental change. “Discuss amongst yourselves.”

Shabbat haGadol – Malachi 3:4-24

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat haGadol – the great Sabbath, or, alternatively, the Sabbath of the great one (which could refer to the Rabbi, who traditionally gives a drashah related to Pesach on this Shabbat, or to the Great One Whose liberation of our people we are about to celebrate). There is a special Haftarah for Shabbat haGadol, but no special Maftir as there is for the “four parshiyot” (perhaps this is why Shabbat haGadol is not included with the other four).

The Haftarah is from the prophet Malachi, who, by tradition, was a member of the Anshei Kenesset haGedolah / “Men of the Great Assembly” which functioned as both a legislature and supreme court at the beginning of the Second Temple period. He was among the very last of the prophets, as the spiritual level of the people had declined to where they were unable to hear/understand/take to heart what the prophets were conveying.

The prophesy has a wonderful phrase (verse 7): shuvu elai v’ashuvah aleichem / Return to Me, and I will return to you (says Hashem). The process of t’shuvah is described as beginning with a movement from below (i.e. from us, from human beings) and Gd then responds to that movement. In other places, we appear to find Gd as initiating the process. So which is it? As usual, I think the answer depends on one’s perspective. From our perspective, we dare not sit around waiting for Gd to make the first move. If we are, or feel ourselves to be, separated from Gd, we had better jolly well get off our buns and start doing something about it! The situation won’t change by itself, as the Law of Inertia tells us. Gd’s promise, in our verse, is that He will respond.

From Gd’s perspective, it’s a different story. Gd is constantly reaching out to us, sending messages, correcting our paths, stirring our hearts to seek Him out. As the Talmud puts it, “more than the calf wants to nurse, the cow wants to give its milk.” Gd is, as it were, yearning for our return to Him, yearning for our Redemption. As Isaiah says, “In its time I will hasten it.” The Rabbis interpret – if Israel is deserving, the Redemption will be hastened. If not, it will come in its time. The choice is ours – the hard way or the easy way. Think about it at your Seder.

A joyous and kosher Pesach to all!