Apr 5 2011

Parshat Metzora: Opportunity and Responsibility

Parshat Metzora

Opportunity and Responsibility

Rabbi Joel Zeff

Our Torah portion is concerned with a particularly difficult area of Jewish law: “tzara’at,”   an impossible to translate term.  The Torah describes this as a phenomenon whereby blotches or dots appear on the skin, clothing, or the walls of the home, rendering the afflicted item ritually impure.  Let’s examine one especially instructive verse from this week’s parsha.

“When you come to the Land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession and I will place an affliction of tzara’at on a house in the land of your possession… “ (Leviticus 14:34).

Ramban comments on the phrase “I will place”:

This alludes to the fact that the hand of God does this and that this is not at all natural, as I have already explained.

Ramban sees the Torah here as emphasizing the supernatural basis of this phenomenon which should not be confused with any sort of natural disease. This, of course, undermines the occasional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy.” He concludes his observation by noting that he has explained this notion elsewhere. Indeed, in last week’s parsha of Tazria,  Ramban comments:

This matter is not at all natural and it only exists in the world… when Israel is whole with the Lord and the spirit of God dwells upon them to support their bodies, clothes, and homes with the best possible appearance. When a Jew fails through sin and transgression there comes into being a kind of pollution on their flesh, clothing, or homes, in order to demonstrate that the Lord has departed from him.

With these fascinating and thought-provoking words, Ramban is suggesting that wholeness with God causes a spiritual “aura” resulting in a visible radiance of aesthetic quality. The various types of tzara’at are a function of the removal of this aura. Indeed, they serve as a wake-up call to repair and restore the integrity of our relationship with God.

Rambam (=Maimonides, not to be confused with Ramban= Nachmanides,quoted above) in his great law code, Mishne Torah, states that these “afflictions” do not appear on houses outside of the Land of Israel. This, again, is based upon our verse above which seems to condition the house being “in the land of your possession.” (No, not even in Brooklyn.)  According to Rambam, this phenomenon does affect people and clothing outside the Land.  Why should only homes in the Holy Land be vulnerable while people and garments were universally affected?

Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, in his work “Iturei Torah,” explains that tzara’at on the flesh reflects sins committed by the body, while tzara’at on clothing is a function of sins committed with one’s possessions.  Sins committed by society as a whole, with respect to its collective moral caliber, are expressed as an affliction on houses. This specificity accentuates the notion that tzara’rat serves to guide us to repent and even directs us to the particular realm in which we need to restore wholeness with God. We can, as individuals, correct our personal sins we committed with our own hands and possessions. But the sins represented by affliction of homes are representative of sinful behavior of society, and with respect to the nature of that society, as a whole. Only in Eretz Yisrael does the Jewish nation have the possibility of sovereignty and thus the ability to fashion an entire social fabric based on the values and laws of our constitution, the Torah. If so, tzara’at on houses is not relevant in the lands of the diaspora, where Jews are not sovereign and thus do not bear on their shoulders, as Jews, responsibility for the imperfections of those societies.

This notion is a powerful reminder of the special opportunity, and responsibility, represented by the rebirth of the Jewish Nation embodied in the State of Israel. Zionism, from our perspective, is nothing less than the opportunity to actualize the very raison d’etre of the Jewish people, the forming of a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.  Our parsha reminds us that this opportunity is inseparable from the weighty responsibility for the imperfections of the society we are creating. Let us rise to the occasion and may the good Lord grant our prayers we utter each Shabbat when we say, “Our Father in heaven, bless the State of Israel… and send your light and truth to its leaders, officials, and advisors, and guide them with good counsel…” and let us say, “Amen!”



Mar 28 2011

Months and Meaning

Months and Meaning

Rabbi Joel Zeff

In addition to the reading of the Torah portion of “Tazria,”, this coming Shabbat we will add a segment from the book of Exodus which begins, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year.” This special reading was established in honor of the month being referred to, now called Nissan, which has a unique status in the calendar. While the Holy Temple in Jerusalem still stood the public recitation of this passage served as a reminder to prepare for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, when all Jews were required to participate in the bringing of the Paschal lamb offering.  Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, in his very first comment on the Torah, paraphrases the Talmudic sages who suggest that, were it not for other considerations, this sentence should have been the first verse of the Torah, since it is the first commandment given through Moses to the newly born Jewish nation. What is this mitzvah which merits such a singular place of honor?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month of Nissan be the reference point for the naming of the months in an ordinal fashion such that what we now call Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations.  At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly inordinate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable.  Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption as the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month-  which is the month of deliverance.  Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness to have an on-going awareness of God’s loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization.  Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us?  When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption,” redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to his promises.