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Parashat Tazria/Shabbat haChodesh 5776 — 04/09/2016

Parashat Tazria/Shabbat haChodesh 5776 — 04/09/2016

Vayikra 12:1-13:59

Although our parashah begins with a teaching about a woman who has just given birth, the bulk of the parashah deals with the affliction known as tzara’at, often mistranslated as “leprosy.” It is, in fact, a spiritual affliction, meant as a sign from Gd that the sufferer has some defect in his or her personality.

…R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi [the founder of Chabad Chassidism] writes that tzaraat is an affliction that strikes only the most exalted individuals (Likkutei Torah, Tazria 22b). … Gd does not bother to put a special mark on a person of no importance to show that he has acted improperly; that would be obvious even without the tzaraat. If a person is known to have serious faults and shortcomings, Gd does not need to let people know that he has sinned, nor does the person himself need a warning from heaven; he knows this on his own.

The sign of a tzara’at affliction on a person’s body is whitened flesh and hair. In fact, it is compared to dead flesh. When Miriam speaks against Moshe Rabbeinu and is striken with tzara’at, their brother Aharon says, “Let her not be as a dead person.” This is perhaps deeper than just a similarity, because among the laws of a metzora (someone afflicted with tzara’at) is that he conveys ritual impurity to anyone who is under the same roof with him, in the same way that a corpse does (nothing else contaminates in this manner).

Like a corpse, a metzora conveys tuma [ritual impurity] by being together with someone or something under the same roof. The implication is that the metzora has already begun to die … He may appear to be alive and kicking, but in truth he is a walking, breathing corpse.

Actually, our Sages tell us the “the wicked are like dead people even during their lives, while the righteous live even after their deaths.” This is, on the surface, metaphorical – the actions of the wicked are destructive to life, whereas the life-supporting influences that the righteous create during the time their bodies are functioning long outlast those bodies’ stay on earth. However I believe there is a deeper meaning to this which I will, Gd willing, explore below.

The metzora is required to live outside the camp, alone, cut off from society. Partially this is a measure-for-measure punishment – the slander that the metzora spread/caused disunity and dissension in society, so he must be apart from the society. Yet in his isolation is his cure:

The only recourse for the metzora is to sit alone. He must keep sitting for as long as it takes to discover what is wrong and to set things right. The metzora is sent out to think, to relieve him of his preoccupation with business, to stop him from giving public sermons. Until he rectifies his problems on his own, he remains a metzora

To remain alone is one of the best ways to attain self-rectification. One begins to reflect more and more on oneself and one’s path, the outer shells of one’s personality begin to fall off, and sometimes parts of a person that were hidden behind these shells are revealed.

I would like to try to tie these various ideas together. Gd is the Source of Life. Gd is infinite, eternal, and is really the only Being Who can be called truly alive – everything else dies. Just as the Truth is that which is eternal, Life, in its fullest sense, is that which is eternal. Now consider the difference between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous attach themselves to Gd by their actions. They act in accordance with Gd’s Will, and in doing so, they transcend their finite status. The nature of the righteous person’s mind becomes more and more expanded, and approaches the infinite nature of Gd. This is truly life, and it survives the passing of the body.

The wicked, on the other hand, by their actions estrange themselves from Gd. They entrench their minds solidly in the physical world, identifying themselves with their bodies and with their bodies’ sensual pleasures. All of this is so fleeting, it is nothing but death warmed over, even while they are alive.

The metzora, as we saw in R. Steinsaltz’ first passage, is not just an ordinary wicked person, who might be beyond hope altogether. In fact, he is a great person, one who can learn from what happens to him (for everything that happens to us has a message, if we would but listen for it). What it takes to open oneself up to the message is the time and space to reflect. This is provided to the metzora by his enforced isolation (much as a sick person is given much-needed rest because his body can no longer function properly). The metzora is forced to transcend his old ways of thinking, the old patterns that have been playing in his mind and poisoning his behavior. Ideally, the metzora will transcend his thought process entirely, and bring his mind to the state of pure, infinite Being. This contact with the source of pure life can then begin to rejuvenate his thinking and his behavior. When it has been rejuvenated to a sufficient degree, he will no longer be considered “dead on his feet,” and can return to society.

The ultimate purpose of our existence is to connect with the Divine, and by so doing infuse Divinity into all aspects of life – into our speech, our interactions with others, our activity, our interactions with the environment. We can do it the easy way, by taking time each day to reflect on our lives, to transcend who we think we are and come in contact with who we really are. Or, we can do it the hard way – going into isolation for an extended period until we can sort out the mess we’ve made of our lives. It’s really a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Haftarah: II Kings 4:42-5:19

This is the regular Haftarah for parashat Tazria, but this year our Shabbat falls on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which is therefore also Shabbat haChodesh, the last of the 4 special Shabbatot that precede Pesach. Next week is Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat” which is the Shabbat that immediately precedes Pesach, and which also has special readings; I have no idea why it is not counted as part of the “4 parshiyot” (which would of course then be 5 parshiyot).

Our Haftarah tells the story of Na’aman, the leader of the Aramean army, who was a metzora, and an enemy of the Jewish people. When he finds that there is no way to be cured other than to consult with Elisha, Gd’s Jewish prophet, he goes to Israel and meets Elisha. (This is akin to Hamas leader Haniyeh’s sending his relatives to an Israeli hospital because they’ll get first-class medical treatment. Oh wait, they do that all the time…) Elisha tells Na’aman to immerse seven times in the Jordan. Na’aman, who is a big macher, stomps off in a huff. Finally, one of his aides tells him, “If Elisha had asked you to do something big, wouldn’t you have done it? Now that all you have to do is take a dip in the river, why not at least try it?” Na’aman gets down off his high horse (literally) and immerses and is cured. Humbled, he returns to Elisha, offers a fortune in payment (which Elisha refuses), and becomes Jewish.

What cured Na’aman. I think it was not the waters of the Jordan. I think it was Na’aman’s humbling himself before something bigger than himself. Once he realized that there is an Absolute ruler of the universe, to whom everyone owes deference, once he got out of his little ego and immersed himself in the ocean of pure Being, he no longer needed to walk around like a dead man. Na’aman really was a great man – according to R. Steinsaltz, it was because of this that he had tzara’at to begin with. By humbling himself, he showed his true greatness. We, who mostly don’t have anything particular to brag about, what can we say for ourselves.

Parashat haChodesh

The maftir for this special Shabbat is the passage in parashat Bo where Gd tells Israel that the month of Nisan is to be the first month of the year (it is the first month of the liturgical year, even though Rosh haShanah is 6 months later). The Haftarah is from Yechezkel (45:16-46:18 – Sephardim conclude 3 verses earlier). In this Haftarah, Yechezkel apparently orders several additional offerings, to take place during the first week of Nisan, that are not ordained in Torah. Now it is an accepted principle that even an acknowledged prophet cannot alter anything in Torah, except for a special need and then only temporarily (the classic example being Elijah’s offering on Mt .Carmel, which was a one-time only event, and which Gd ratified by sending fire from heaven to consume the offering). The commentators deal with this apparent anomaly in various ways, and most of these other offerings were actually not made during the time when the Temples stood. If, in fact, the Torah is the blueprint of creation, it is obvious why nobody can alter it – we can’t alter reality! However, it may be that that reality is perceived in different ways by different people at different places and times, since there are differences in peoples’ nervous systems, and there are different environmental influences from the place and time. Yechezkel prophesied after the destruction of the First Temple, and primarily in Babylonia. Perhaps this led to some distortion??