Posted on March 27, 2014 by Hirsch Fishman
Parshat Tazria presents the laws of zara’at (leprosy). This lengthy exposition that continues into next week’s portion highlights the difficulties in learning (and teaching) the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The detailed laws of kosher animals from last week’s portion are complicated enough. But over one hundred and fifty verses about lepers and bodily discharges overwhelmingly stretch our exegetical flexibility in order to find meaning and relevance in the Torah portion. What can we, living in a world where religious life thrives without paying much attention to tum’ah and tahara (purity and impurity), learn from these details?
Regarding these laws of purity and impurity, specifically the laws of ritual immersion, Rambam writes (Laws of Mikva’ot 11:12): “It is obvious that the rules of purity and impurity are a decree of scripture and are not among the things that human intelligence can discern. They are part of the hukim [statutes for which we don’t know the reason], for ritual impurity is not dirt or soil that can be removed with water… Nevertheless there is an allusion in [these laws]…” He himself goes on to derive a particular lesson from the details of immersion in the ritual bath regarding the power of human intention.
Following Rambam’s lead, I think we can find other allusions and lessons from the laws of ritual purity. Let’s focus on two somewhat inverse observations about the rules of tum’ah. First, the primary source of tum’ah is physical contact with a dead body or an animal carcass. Encounter with this brute fact of physical life, the reality of death, causes the most lasting ritual impurity. Conversely, the laws of zara’at in our portion, describe physical ailments to the human body. These ailments are certainly not caused by some disease, as the Torah instructs us to turn to the priest, and not a physician. In the view of our sages this leprosy is caused by a moral deficiency, specifically arrogance or speaking gossip about others. Why should the Torah decree ritual impurity as an outcome of a physical encounter? And why should we be punished with a physical affliction for our moral failings?
On the most basic level, the rules of purity and impurity compel us to accept that the world around us is not what it seems. Or rather, it is not only what it seems. The laws of tuma’h and zara’at deliberately blur the line between the physical and spiritual world. What you thought was a physical encounter with a dead body, the Torah decrees as a profound spiritual event that requires ritual recovery. What you consider to be a personal, or interpersonal, issue will find expression in a physical disfiguration.
By forcing us to deal in a tangible way with the spiritual implications of our physical world and the physical consequence of our spiritual world, the Torah empowers us to recognize the multi-layered reality around us. Ultimately it is up to us whether we recognize and respond to this ‘alternate’ reality.