Shabbat Tazria 5774: Watch For Rot

Our parashat hashavua (“reading of the week”) is one of the more misunderstood of the entire Torah. It seems to be entirely too consumed with concern regarding the appearance of discolorations on a person’s skin or hair. The first verse of our reading this year, the third of the Triennial Cycle, begins:

When a man or a woman has a נגע upon the head or the beard….(Lev. 13.29) This is actually part of a much larger section on what is usually translated “leprosy” (no relation to Hansen’s disease) and is called in Hebrew tzara’at. The verses between Lev. 13.1 and Lev. 14.53 can be seen as a unit which follows a simple a-b-a-b pattern:

Tzara’at of a person, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a garment, diagnosis

Tzara’at of a person, declaring clean and atonement

Tzara’at of a house, diagnosis, cleansing, and atonement

In her book Leviticus as Literature, the anthropologist Mary Douglas proposes that this unit of Torah describes a “body-Temple microcosm”. The body and the Temple are seen as exact reflections of each other. Your body is a Temple, and the Temple is a body. Anything and everything which upsets the healthy stasis of one or the other is a very serious matter, because your individual body cannot be separated from the community’s body, nor from the Temple. We are all one – animate and inanimate.

Leviticus is not easy to read, but it contains hints way back to the most ancient Israelite religious beliefs and practices. Among them is this idea, no less true for us: no part of us can be allowed to decay or become infectious without damage to the rest of us. Mold, rot, fungus – whether physical or moral – must be watched for constantly, because when it spreads it damages all of us. It is interesting to note the physical-moral connection. Is it true that if we act immorally, our houses will also be affected? Is that not exactly the case when, for example, insufficient oversight of building contracts allows substandard buildings to be built that may then collapse?

The medieval Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides believed that moral rot would sooner or later show on the body. The underlying truth of that assertion shows up in myth and fairy tale (just think about how many bad guys physically corrode in death). This indicates some deeper truth that our rational intellects don’t want to, or can’t, handle; instead we take refuge in insisting that there are those who suffer who are innocent. That is true, but it is only a simple truth. There is a complex truth here. Our intellects can see the connection between moral and physical rot in the fabric of our communities, when we allow part of town to deteriorate, or when we underfund our schools and public services, or when innocent individuals suffer physical ailments such as tzara’at, whatever it was – and is. People downstream from chemicals may suffer physical ailments; that is not so difficult a moral connection to make. Someone dumped those chemicals.

We do not know every moral and physical connection in our world; we cannot understand every suffering. But the ancient truth cannot be so easily swept aside, especially when atonement is prescribed – that is to say, possible. The innocent suffer; what is our complicity? Where is the rot in our surroundings? How might we  atone for the civic, environmental, and political sins we have committed as a community, and clean up our act? We are, after all, all in this together.

Shabbat Zakhor and Purim 5774: Laugh It Off

Here comes Purim, the better to liven up the book of Leviticus! Our parashah for this week is Tzav, “command”, in the imperative form of the word, no less. And yet Torah comes first; Purim begins at the close of Shabbat, tomorrow.

 

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zakhor; it always precedes Purim (this year not by much). It reminds us to forget. And this is only the first of the curious inversions of the Purim holiday period:

 

1. We are commanded in the special extra Torah reading for this Shabbat to “remember to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut.25.19)

2. We are commanded in the regular reading of the parashat hashavua to light a fire an eternal flame: “fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continuously; it shall not go out.” (Lev. 6.6)

3. We are commanded by the mitzvot of the holy day of Purim to laugh at the terrifying story of a powerful tyrant who held a lottery to decide the best day to massacre the Jewish people of his land. We are commanded to laugh, one might say, in fear, or in fury, or in defiance.

 

Purim invites us to turn our expectations upside down and to take lightly our own most sober conventions; it is more of a surprise to discover the same invitation to inversion coded in the Book of Leviticus, a seemingly mind-numbing recording of the minutiae of priestly sacrificial work. Yet the religious anthropologist Mary Douglas alerts us to just this astonishing fact. Hidden in the literary style of Leviticus is a great work of art: rings upon rings of echoes, parallels upon parallels of concepts and words. Here’s an example just right for this time of year, as we prepare for the great Festival of the Exodus from Egypt:

 

The Bible is sprinkled with famous puns, and Leviticus is no exception. For example, two distinct verbs are used in the Bible to refer to G-d’s bringing the Israelites out of Egypt: the commonest is literal “to bring out”, the rarer one, only used in Leviticus 11.45, is literally “to bring up“. In Hebrew the same word means “to regurgitate”. In this one rare case the verb for the L-rd’s saving action is the same as that used for “bringing up the cud”, one of the criteria of a clean animal. By this device the whole of chapter 11 is bracketed between the opening law that says the only animals to be used as food are ruminants which bring up the cud and the concluding passage, “I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you up [regurgitated you] from Egypt.” (Mary Douglas, Leviticus As Literature: 49)

 

Laughter is a curious thing. Aristotle posited that when a baby laughed for the first time, it became a human being, with a human soul. Something about laughter lifts us up above the animal kingdom, perhaps – and certainly lifts us out of victimization. Laughter fits us Jews very well, after all – we perfected the art of laughing through tears in modern comedy, even as we suffered persecution and discrimination. On this Shabbat and, upon its heels, Purim, let’s take the message to heart: some things, like Amalek, are best forgotten in laughter. Some things, like keeping an eternal fire – or any other important purpose – burning, can’t be taken too seriously if we are to succeed.