This weeks double Torah portion (Tazri’a-M’Tzora) covers the subject of birth and ritual purity. M’tzora deals with the theme of purification of a person afflicted with Tzora’at and other conditions that can make them Tamei (impure) as discussed in Tazri’a. Following a regular birth, a woman becomes “ritually unclean”- one week for a boy (who is then circumcised on the 8th day) and two weeks for a girl. This period (called Tum’ah- impurity) is followed by a period of 33 day’s for a boy and 66 for a girl where the mother waits until she can bring a Korbanot of the Yoledet. Vayikra (12:6-7) say’s this: “Upon the completion of the days of her purity for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep within its first year for an olah-offering, and a young dove or a turtledove for a sin-offering, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the Kohen. He shall offer it before HaShem and atone for her, and she shall become purified from the source of her blood; this is the law for one who gives birth to a male or to a female.” When a couple join together to create a new baby, they make a connection to the divine by bringing down a new soul.
This Torah portion covers another condition of body that comes from the “inside out”. This is called “N’Ga’im” (lesions). The Cohen are designated to inspect the Tzora’at area of a person potentially inflicted with this condition and it is forbidden to cut hair from this area of infection as it could be an indicator as to the actual issue. The parasha itself does offer up an example of a rash with spots that is in fact just a rash and the Torah is not saying that all illness of the body is illness of the mind/soul, but it is saying that the three do work and interplay with each other. In modern day medicine we do find the phenomenon of psychological causes created by physical symptoms. The American Psychological Association state on their website that stress can have an affect on the immune, respiratory and cardiovascular system. Stress has also been associated with hair loss. Baldness is discussed in the parasha and whilst this is mostly a natural phenomenon, it’s stated that when it falls out in certain way’s, it might also indicate Tzora’at. This takes us back to why the person who is possibly affected should not remove the hair.
One of the key concepts behind the of idea of Tzora’at is that the condition on the outside is affected by the persons internal qualities (their psychology basically) and the Cohen will assess the personal life of the afflicted. One of the key things that ties the idea of child birth to external sickness is that when the mother is pregnant she is bringing forth new life and when a person works on their character, they also bring out life. One of the causes for an external affliction is La’Shon Hora (evil speech).
The purification process for the impurity includes bringing two birds that are taken to be used in a ceremony where one is slaughtered and the other set free. Why two birds? The idea of using two birds reminds me of the teaching of the Ben Ish Hai on the Korbanot where he compares the Korbanot to a person’s soul and that when a person returns to becoming to religious they cut away something from their being and replace it with something else. By sacrificing one bird and releasing the other is the Torah teaching us that in losing something, we also gain something? That by making a sacrifice for something that lead to impurity, we gain some kind of freedom? In Tanakh, birds are often associated with positivity. In the book of Jonah (the name Jonah literally means dove) we hear of a story of re-birth, where Jonah in conflict with G-d is cast into the sea by seamen whilst evading a mission sent to him by the divine and he is swallowed by a sea a creature a spat out again. Jonah then completes his mission to help the people of Nineveh to do Teshuva before HaShem destroys the town. Jonah interestingly spends three day’s and three nights in the sea creatures belly and this recalls something else I’ve previously mentioned that comes in threes (from the Ben Ish Hai): “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”, what we think, what we say and what we do. Basically our internal character as it works it’s way outwards. We also hear of the dove in Bereshit where the dove is sent out from Noah’s Ark to find dry land for seven day periods and the final time the dove is sent out it brings back on Olive branch, which is a symbol of peace in Judaism. Shalom, the word for peace is connected to the word for wholeness and the city of Jerusalem shares the same root in it’s Hebrew spelling and is the place where HaShem’s presence is most felt hinting that by going teshuva and coming back to our good way’s we can come close to that wholeness. By literally changing his journey, Jonah, like a baby in a womb, came back a-new and was able to receive mercy from HaShem.
The Hebrew word for bird is Tzipporah and we hear of a town in the history of Israel called Tzippori and here we find an interesting connection to L’Shon Horah in the midrash. We hear of Rochel who goes from town to town in the area of Tzipppori (the Galilee) selling his wears. Interestingly the name Rochel has a similar root to Rechilus, who is someone that goes from person to person with gossip. Rochel is asking people “who wants the elixir of life, who wants to buy?”. Nobody answers, that is until Rav Yania offers to buy. Rochel, however, tell’s him that he doesn’t need it, I’m not selling it to people like you. Rav Yania is insistent, so Rochel takes out a sefer and it say’s “who is the person who desires life” (from David HaMelech) and it goes on to say “…prevent your mouth from saying bad things and go away and do good things”. That was his elixir of life.
In relation to two birds the Vilna Gaon say’s there are two concepts; din and cheshbon. He say’s that “din” is that you have to pay for all the bad things you do and that you have to pay twice as “cheshvon” is the calculation that while you could of being doing good things, you were doing bad things. When a person is saying bad things, not only are they saying L’Shon Hora but they are losing out on an opportunity to say something good; a divrei Torah, a complement, anything nice.
We hear of the affects of La’Shon Hora with the story of Miriam. Miriam is the sister of Moshe and Aaron. We hear of her story of La’Shon Hora when she speaks against Moshe to their brother Aaron for the dark skinned women he has married and she is punished by HaShem with leprosy (Bamidmar 12:1-10). In the Artscroll Yom Kippur Siddur in the section on Vidduy, there is an expansion on what LaShon Hora actually is: “We have spread gossip and slander. To defame others is a grievous sin, even if the stories are true.” We learn from the psukim that what Miriam said about Moshe’s wife was true, but her sin was talking about her in a derogatory manner to Moshe. The sin of L’Shon Hora even includes saying something about a person which might be true. Miriam was punished for her evil speech with Tzora’at and made to stay outside of the camp for a week, but it wasn’t she alone that was punished. Even though he didn’t speak L’Shon Hora, he listened to it without protesting and Aaron was also punished, but not as severely. Devarim (24:8) say’s the following: “Be mindful of the Tzaraat affliction, to be very careful and to act accordingly”.
It is the Cohen that can declare an afflicted person M’tzora under certain circumstances and declare them as being tamie (impure). As we see with Miriam, the Cohen might order a person to be outside the camp for a week of quarantine with a seventh day examination (the second examination). If unclean if there is an additional week to stay outside of the camp, until the affliction is gone. The affects of L’Shon Hora can lead the person being spoken about negatively to experience social exclusion and isolation, but the Torah itself punishes the transgressor with this punishment once they are infected.
The affects of L’Shon Hora have been seen throughout Jewish history. When we examine the history of the Jewish nation, we discover that we were exiled to Galut for the very reason of La’Shon Hora and this sin according to the Chofetz Chaim supersedes them all. It was the baseless hatred we had for each other than brought about the destruction of the second temple and our subsequent exile. In Shemot 2:14 it is said “אכן נודע הדבר”- “For the matter is known. Rashi explains that he wondered why Bnei Israel had been committed to such backbreaking labor in Egypt and what did they deserve to receive this, but after hearing them speak L’Shon Hora he understood why. Furthermore, the Gemara (Arachin 15b) say’s that the severity of the sin is such that one who speaks it is literally denying the existence of HaShem. The purpose of the Jew in the world is to serve the divine and therefore how can a person speak L’Shon HaKodesh and speak words of L’Shon Hora? This takes me back to the idea of murder and why it is beyond the physical and related to what we think, say and do; because what we think and say can lead up to the actions of murder and drive a person down to a state of death and it is not healthy for mind, body and soul.
The Tzora’at does not just afflict the body, we learn that it can also affect a person’s house. However, this relates only to the land of Israel in a house made a specific materials and under specific conditions. The Cohen again is the adjudicator in the situation as to whether the house is affected or not and there are also purification procedures including korbanot involved in purification. This indicates that it’s not just a person’s body that contains spirituality, but also the home. The home itself contains holiness, that like the being of a person, it should be a place for goodness. A home that lacks this, is open to Tzora’at. The home is where each generation of Jew is taught.
It’s a Jewish principle that making someone embarrassed (making them blush is an example as it draws blood to the face) is akin to murder, as is slander, as it tears away at another person’s soul. This double Torah portion teaches us that there is a way to become pure again after falling into a state of impurity, but how does a person do Teshuva for murder? And if murder is defined beyond physical death then should we not take note of the warning from Devarim? What does the Gemara have to say about this. In Mesecet Rosh Hasharah we learn about the risks involved in taking a life. A discussion takes place regarding the gentiles stealing the trees from Jerusalem. It’s stated that one day they will have to return everything they’ve taken. In reference to his murder by the Romans, Rabbi Eliezer say’s “how will they bring back Rabbi Akiva?”.