Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

“The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ”Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”  (Leviticus 14:35)

We read two parashot (portions) this week because of the way the Jewish calendar is calculated.  Months are determined by the moon’s cycle, but the year is determined by the sun’s.  Therefore, a Jewish year (including leap years, which add an entire month) can have from 50 to 55 weeks.  Since the number of parashot doesn’t change, some years require certain parashot to  “double up” on a given Shabbat.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora discusses the laws of ritual purity and impurity and describes tzara-at, a supra-natural plague which afflicts people, clothes, and homes.  The Talmud assumes the metzora (someone with tzara-at ) is afflicted because the person spoke lashon hara, evil speech.  The ritual for purification includes collecting a hyssop plant (along with two clean birds, cedar, and crimson) to be brought to the priest (Lev. 14:4).  Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) explains the hyssop is chosen because it is a very low-growing plant, symbolizing humility, the opposite of the vanity that often leads to lashon hara.  If a person becomes truly humble, all sins are forgiven (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17a, b).

The Sfat Emet (1847-1905; Yehudah Leib Alter, a child prodigy and the 2nd Rebbe of the Gerer Chassidim) adds an interesting insight.  He explains the priest does not lecture the metzora on the evil of vanity.  Instead, the metzora must collect the hyssop.  This is because the symbolic act (lowering yourself to the ground) offers a personal experience of humility.  That experience is far more likely to trigger true introspection, which is necessary for authentic and lasting change, than a lecture.  The Sfat Emet understands that real learning comes from the insights we generate ourselves, rather than the ideas that others preach at us.  JCCs know it too, using experiential learning as their primary mode of Jewish engagement.

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,

David

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