Metzorah 5782 – The Search for Meaning

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

There are probably no Torah parashahs as widely misunderstood as Tazria and Metzorah. Although I had a lot of trouble trying to understand them, some commentators feel this part of the Torah may well be the most relevant, poignant, and emotionally powerful of the entire year. These parshiot are devoted entirely to the subject of ritual purity. They discuss what causes people to become ritually impure, how they can become ritually pure again, and what the effects of impurity are. For many modern readers, this topic is off putting. It seems primitive and far removed from the real concerns of an ethical and monotheistic religion. And yet, to the authors of the Bible, these laws were of paramount importance.

Like me, many readers think Leviticus frowns on ritual impurity, that it regards ritual impurity as objectionable or forbidden. But this is not the case. Many of the causes of ritual purity are perfectly natural – for example, menstruation or sexual emissions. Some are even praiseworthy.  Close proximity to a human corpse causes impurity, and thus burying a dead person renders one impure. But doing so is morally admirable. Leviticus doesn’t forbid family members and neighbors from preparing a loved one’s body for burial, or women from normal bodily functions. Ritual impurity is a normal state that is perfectly permissible in biblical law. Permitted ritual impurity is distinguished by the following features: First, it is contagious, transferred from one person or object to another in a variety of ways, such as physical contact or sharing space within a covered area as noted in the description of the Tzaraat, incorrectly called Leprosy.  Second, impurity contracted from a source of ritual impurity is not permanent and can be reduced and removed by some combination of purification, time, and/or the performance of specified rituals.  Third, ritual impurity can defile holy objects and places and must be kept separate from it.

Ritual impurity is distinguished from moral impurity, or impurity of the soul, which arise from heinous, prohibited acts.

While ritual impurity, itself, is not forbidden, what the Torah does forbid, however, is entering the tabernacle when one is in a state of ritual impurity. Since the Torah considered ritual impurity as contagious, in order to minimize the extent to which someone might unknowingly bring their ritual impurity in the Temple, Leviticus requires people who are ritually impure to cleanse themselves of that impurity owhen they can before entering the Tabernacle.

But one should ask: if there is nothing morally wrong with the ritually impure, and in fact there are situations in which it is morally praiseworthy to become ritually impure why is going to the Temple while impure forbidden?

As mentioned, ritual impurity may not in any way be bad; but it is essentially Un-Godly and signifies the absence of Holiness. And so, one did not walk into God’s home when one was ritually impure. Leviticus insists that rules govern when and how we may come into God’s house. But Leviticus also tells us that this gracious God remains in charge, and thus if we want to come close to God, we have to do so on God’s own mysterious terms.

So, why is something that is morally neutral and sometimes morally positive incompatible with God’s presence, that is, ritually impure?

To answer this question, we need to know something about the nature of biblical monotheism. Surprisingly, the basic idea of monotheism in the Bible is not that there is only one God. It is God’s uniqueness rather than God’s oneness that is the essential content of monotheism.  The God of Israel is qualitatively different from all other deities – and infinitely more powerful. Monotheism, then, is the belief that one supreme being exists, whose will is supreme over all other beings, whether heavenly or earthly. The Bible proclaims that the God of Israel, the creator of the world, is different from all other gods. This God was never born, never has sex, never gives birth, and never dies.

What does all this have to do with the esoteric details in our parashah. Many scholars concur that life/death symbolism is the underlying principle behind the biblical purity system. All situations that bring about ritual impurity relate to the four characteristics of God I just mentioned. Ritual impurity arises from physical substances and states associated with procreation and death, which are not themselves sinful. Childbirth causes ritual impurity.  Sexual activity causes ritual impurity. Proximity to corpse produces the highest-level ritual impurity. The skin disease, tzaraat, causes skin to become scaly white, and thus looks similar to the skin of a corpse. In the mind of the ancient authors, this disease was thought of as a kind of living death on a person’s body. So it, too, brought about ritual impurity.

These laws of tumah or spiritual impurity belong to a category of Commandments in the Torah known as chukkim. These laws are supra-rational, where there is no apparent reason.  To some degree, these serve to test our allegiance to God in observing His commandments even when not dictated by logic.

But even if the human mind can’t understand these divine decrees logically, we can nevertheless try to understand them spiritually and search for their inner meaning and significance.

It is said that first it is necessary to start observing the mitzvot and eventually we will almost certainly come to a better appreciation of their significance and truth. To approach this matter from the opposite direction; that is, to understand first and only then to do, is wrong for two reasons. First, the loss involved not performing mitzvot cannot be retrieved. Secondly, the very observance of the mitzvot, which creates an immediate bond with God, which may help us to better understand and appreciate them.  Let me give you a medical analogy to try and understand. Suppose that a previously unknown virus suddenly appeared and caused many deaths.  Your doctor told you there were new vaccines available to decrease the chance of serious illness and recommended you get vaccinated.   You don’t know anything about theses vaccines.  Would you delay taking the vaccine until you understood how it worked or would you follow your doctor’s advice and take the vaccine and learn more about it later?

For those of us who have trouble understanding Chukim commandments, let me quote the Torah which says: “(the other nations) which shall hear all those statutes (Chukim) will say, “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

In the end, parashah Metzorah and less about separation from the community, and more about reentry and reintegration. If there is a lesson for us in this parashah, it is to remind us of the need for constant vigilance and for developing an awareness of our discomfort with those who are different, and of the way we marginalize others. Only by our acts in reaching out to the disaffected and disenfranchised among us, can we ensure the survival of the Jewish community.