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!”