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.

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