Our Rabbi Helaine Ettinger is an extraordinary leader, holding all of us together through zoom during the pandemic, lifting our spirits, and enriching our knowledge of judaism through our book discussions.
Below is a d’var Torah that she shared with us concerning the parsha that many of us thought dealt with how to purify the community struck with leprocy. We hope you enjoy it!
CBI D’var Torah, Tazria-Metzora 5781/2021
This week's double parsha, Tazria-Metzora, can be a hard set of chapters to love. The details of skin ailments and details of how to handle bodily emissions, are pretty gross, to be perfectly honest. The priestly responsibilities connected to diagnosing, observing, responding to, and purifying these states of impurity seem far removed from our contemporary experience. But part of the problem with these sections of Leviticus, is that we read them too literally. Leviticus is not a medical treatise, it is a spiritual treatise.
According to the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “It was the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, [in which] tzaraat, the condition whose identification and cleansing occupies much of Tazria and Metsora, [was translated as the Greek word] lepra, giving rise to a long tradition identifying it with leprosy.
That tradition is now widely acknowledged to be incorrect. First, the condition described in the Torah simply does not fit the symptoms of leprosy. Second, the Torah applies it not only to various skin conditions but also to mildew on clothes and the walls of houses, which certainly rules out any known disease.” Published online on 2nd April, 2011, Tazria (5771) - Othello, WikiLeaks and Mildewed Walls - Rabbi Sacks
So, when the Book of Leviticus explains that a “plague breaks out” on the walls of a house, it is not referring to a biological illness. So what is it? Jewish commentators through the centuries have seen this “plague” as a sickness of the soul, a symbolic manifestation of the spiritual ill-health of those who live in the house. The 16th-century biblical commentator, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, interpreted the infection of a house as a warning to society. He cautioned that the infection of stones and mortar revealed the need to address moral misconduct in society. Wouldn’t it be something if social ills could be identified that readily and reliably?
In the mid-eighteenth century, the United States faced a mortal threat, a civil war that might have ruptured the nation. President Abraham Lincoln often referenced the bible in his speeches and his writing. In one now-famous speech, delivered on June 16, 1858, he described our country as an “ailing house”.
‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.
Moral degeneration, as surely as bodily degeneration worsens and spreads throughout a society if left unchecked. Lincoln saw slavery as a sickness in the soul of our nation. In a manner analogous to this week’s parsha, he compared his beloved country to a house so beset by decay that it was too weak to stand.
Among the civil war era Jewish artifacts on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History, is a book entitled “A Woman’s War Record.”i In it Mrs. Septima M. Levy Collis, describes the pain of living through the war in a household that was literally divided between the Union and the Confederacy. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Septima Levy, the young bride of Union General Charles H.T. Collis, had friends and family fighting on both sides of the conflict. “I never fully realized the fratricidal character of the conflict,” she wrote, “until I lost my idolized brother, Dave, of the Southern army one day, and was nursing my Northern husband back to life the next”. She experienced both the destruction brought by the war and the first signs of healing. Recalling a time when she and her husband were stationed in Virginia, she noted: “City Point,
[Virginia] became one vast hospital for suffering humanity. As far as the eye could reach…the plain was dotted with tents which were rapidly filled with wounded men, Northern and Southern, white and black without distinction.”
The book of Leviticus instructs us that if a house suspected of plague has been quarantined for seven days and still shows signs of plague when the Priest comes to inspect it, then more drastic measures are called for. A full layer of stones and mortar must be scraped away from the inside of the home and a new layer of stones and plaster must be installed in its place. In other words, when the home is truly noxious, sometimes we have to break down and toss away a layer of the structure in order for the structure to be cleansed.
The scars of slavery and the Civil War continue to figure prominently in American politics and culture. Though some healing has taken place there is still a plague in our national structure. Like the Priest in Leviticus we have been observing our American society for over 150 years since the end of the Civil War, a period of observation far longer than the one week prescribed in today’s parsha, and the visible signs of disease remain. Racism continues to be a moral illness in our society. I can only speak for myself, but it took me a long time to see how pernicious and systemic racism is in America. As a Jew, I thought I understood what it meant to suffer bigotry and persecution. I thought that since I understood anti-Semitism that I also understood racism. I thought racism, like my experience of anti-Semitism in this country, was made up of ugly and obvious incidents of cruelty and bias. It is, but it is also an infinite number of more subtle moments of insult and injury: in the way we speak to people of color, the way we look at people of color, the unconscious bias that prevents people of color from advancing at work, the economic disadvantages that impact the education of so many children of color in this country. Black and brown people in our country live with and have to overcome so many hurdles that white-skinned Americans do not face on a day to day basis. I am not trying to minimize the threat of anti-Semitism in this country. That threat is real but it is not as insidiously embedded into American culture as racism is because of the hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination that built inequity into the very structure of our nation. Our American house is inflicted with tzaraat, with moral corrosion. It is time to dig deeper. It is time to dig out the decay in our society.
Each time we have made some progress we have been too quick to plaster over the problem. As we read in Tazria-Metzora, “Whoever enters the house…shall be impure until evening. Whoever sleeps in the house must wash those clothes, and whoever eats in the house must wash those clothes.” (Leviticus 14:46-47) We have yet, as a society, to acknowledge that we are all wearing impure clothes. We have yet, as a Jewish community, to acknowledge that we are all wearing impure clothes.
Tazria-Metzora may seem archaic and superstitious, at first glance. However, through the prism of rabbinic commentary it is easy to see that these words continue to apply to us. We are accountable for what takes place in our home. We are responsible for how we treat others and for the way we permit others to behave in our home. We would not allow people to be hurt or feel threatened in our actual homes. In fact, we would speak up or change things if we felt our home was unsafe. Now we must speak up and work to change things in our country so that it can be a home for all of its inhabitants. i A Woman’s War Record, 1861-1865, Septima Maria Levy Collis, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1897 National Museum of American Jewish History