Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Leviticus 12:1-15:33  

Summary

There are fifty-four separate Torah portions. There are some years, therefore, when there are fewer Shabbatot than Torah portions. In those years, specific Torah portions are combined and read together on one Shabbat. This is one of those years. Tazria-Metzora, are two of the least popular portions for modern Jews. (As one Bar Mitzvah student once said, "My sister got the portion with the Ten Commandments, and all I got was leprosy!")

Tazria means "she gives birth." The Torah stipulates that a woman is ritually impure after giving birth. A certain amount of time is proscribed for her to stay away from the mikdash (holy sanctuary) depending on whether she has given birth to a boy (33 days) or a girl (66 days). At the conclusion of the time period, she is to bring a sacrifice to the kohain (priest). The parasha goes on to describe the diagnosis and treatment by the kohanim of a skin disease called tzara'at, which is commonly translated as "leprosy" (but whose symptoms are quite different from the disease which modern doctors know by that name). Treatment included isolation from the community. Once the skin condition healed, the formerly afflicted person offered sacrifices before being declared ritually pure again. The second parsha Metzora deals with treatment for a type of tzara'at which appeared occasionally on houses. Metzora also contains our first mention of ritual immersion  bathing in water in a certain manner  to purify a person, cleansing him or her from a physical impurity.

Commentary

  • The sages taught that tzara'at was not a bodily disease, but a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease. They believed that it was a punishment for saying bad or untrue things about others. They said that the Hebrew word Metzora is a contraction of the words motzi rah which means "one who spreads slander." The "treatment" or punishment for the metzorah (the one afflicted with tzara'at ) was being outcast for a period of time. During this time of isolation, the metzorah could reflect on the damage done by his or her words. Once the condition had been cured, the metzorah then offered a sacrifice including two birds: one to slaughter and one to set free. Rashi says that God wanted the metzorah to sacrifice birds in order to remind the person about the sin of chattering like a bird. The Midrash Shocher Tov says "The damage done by evil talk is compared to the piercing, irreparable destruction of an arrow. Why is the tongue compared to an arrow? An arrow cannot be called back once it has been shot, even if the marksman wishes to do so. Just as the victim does not know about it until it actually reaches him, so the effects of evil talk are not felt until the arrows of a wicked person pierce him."

  • According to the Mishnah (Nega'im 2:2) people who see white, leprous-like spots on their skin should not inspect themselves to determine whether they have a case of tzara'at. Rather, they should have a kohainperform the inspection for them. This is because most of us are quite incapable of seeing our own faults. 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Why would the birth of a girl cause a woman to be ritually impure for twice the length of time as the birth of a boy?  (Try to think of a non-sexist answer!) 

  2. Regardless of your answer to question 1, can you think of other ways that traditional Judaism treats men and women differently? Do you think that these differences are legitimate? 

  3. Why would a woman have to bring a sin offering after giving birth?

    Our Sages have suggested one possible answer: In the pain of childbirth, a woman might vow that she will never go through such pain again. Such an oath is a transgression of the mitzvah to "be fruitful and multiply." Upon seeing the new baby, she repents of her oath and brings the offering to express her teshuvah.  

  4. In Parshat Tazria, God tells Moses that male infants are to be circumcised on the eighth day. Tradition says that the number eight represents one day more than the period of creation, reminding us that it takes human intervention to perfect God's creation. Can you think of other ways in which human culture perfects the natural gifts that God has given us? 

  5. Basing itself on the Talmud (Arakin 15b), Maimonides' Mishneh Torah teaches that "Evil talk kills three persons: the utterer, the listener and the subject the listener more than the utterer." What does this mean? How can talk "kill"? Why "the listener more than the utterer"?
     

  6. The idea of the ritual bath or mikvah is based on God's desire for us to do teshuvah to return. By doing teshuvah, we wash away the past and start anew. Some women go to the mikvah before they get married, or once every month; and some men go before Shabbat or festivals  especially Yom KippurYom Kippur is the holiday traditionally associated with teshuvah, when we all are supposed to think about what we do and how we can change to be better people. Did you make teshuvah last Yom Kippur? Now that the year is about half way through, evaluate how you're doing. Take this opportunity to decide if you've made the changes you wanted to and to renew your good intentions. (Make sure to include ones about avoiding "evil talk"!) 

  7. Leprosy  now known as Hansen's Disease  was a very disfiguring disease and the people who suffered from it were often shunned by society. Although Hansen's Disease is very rare in our time, there are other ailments whose victims are shunned by society. What do you think you could do to become more comfortable with such people?