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Longwinded Stream-of-Consciousness

In Parashat Metzora, the Torah lays out what is to be done with a metzora, somebody struck with the skin affliction typically translated as leprosy, despite likely not being exactly that. Part of the purification ritual for a leper involved slaughtering a bird, dipping hyssop into its blood, and sprinkling that blood on the leper. The process is more detailed than that, but those are all of the relevant details for this post.

I want to highlight a comment of Ibn Ezra’s. I believe he was one of multiple commentators to point out that this ritual is similar to the instruction the Israelites are given for the night that God will strike down the Egyptian firstborn. The similarities are as follows. First, both involve dipping hyssop in blood and transferring that blood somewhere. In the Exodus story, the blood is wiped on the doorposts of the Israelites’ home to signal to God that He should pass over those homes and not smite the firstborn inside. In Leviticus, again, the blood is sprinkled onto the leper as part of the purification process. The second similarity is that leprosy, a translation of the Hebrew tzaarat, is described as a naga, a plague. That word is also used to describe the plagues of Egypt. A related word, nagaf, is used as a verb to describe God’s striking against the Egyptian firstborn. The root word, N-G, carries meanings of against, striking out, touching, etc. This suggests that, like the Egyptian plagues, tzaraat is an act of God against the person with the tzaraat. The traditional explanation has been that God inflicts tzaraat on those who speak lashon hara - evil speech (gossip, slander, etc.).

What I find interesting is that both the Leviticus and Exodus stories deal with boundaries. In Exodus, the blood is wiped on the boundaries of the Israelites’ home to distinguish the Israelites. The blood is a demarcation line between Egyptian and Israelite, between those that are to be struck at and those that are to be spared. In Leviticus, blood is sprinkled on the skin to remedy impurity arising from a skin condition, tzaraat. Skin is the boundary between the body and the outside world. Tzaraat can also occur on clothing, a boundary between one’s nakedness and the public. It can also occur on the walls of a home, the boundary between private and public space. Additionally, metzoras with tzaraat are sent outside the bounds of the camp/city to quarantine, and then after they are purified, must remain outside of their tent for seven days. What’s going on here with all of these boundaries?

Tzaraat, like the 10 plagues, is described as a striking out. It is not a plague in the modern sense of the word, as it does not transmit physically (the Rabbis state that a metzora is only impure after a priest declares him so; all those in contact with the metzora before he was declared impure are not impure). Instead, it is a spiritual plague. It is not a bacteria that strikes against the metzora, but God. Again, the Rabbis explain that God strikes a person with tzaraat for engaging in evil speech. We know how easily evil speech, gossip and slander and such, can spread. It is like a physical plague. One person tells another, who tells another, and so on. The Divine plague of tzaraat acts as an identifier of those engaged in evil speech. A metzora is identified by the priest, then isolated outside the camp. As a result, the evil speech cannot continue to spread.

I think the connection between tzaarat and the night of the slaying of the firstborn is that concept of distinction/identification. The blood on the doorposts identified and distinguished the Israelites in the midst of the Egyptians, allowing God to pass over them. The tzaraat on a metzora distinguishes the slanderer, allowing the community to isolate them. Interestingly enough, isolation and identification is one of the strategies God tells the priests to use in diagnosing tzaraat. A possible metzora is to shave all hair around an area which is affected so that the priest can track its spread. In general, in medicine, doctors isolate a phenomenon to create a diagnosis. To ascertain whether a person is allergic to gluten, they might instruct that person to either isolate and eat only gluten products, or isolate and eat zero gluten products (BTW, reminds me of removing chametz, leaven, which rises and spreads, from the home pre-Pesach). In looking at a society, tzaraat allows those entities which are harmful and contagious to be removed.

Earlier, I wrote that I included all relevant details from the purification ceremony. That’s not entirely true. I did not mention that the bird that is slaughtered is done over an earthen vessel filled with water. In addition to hyssop, another bird, this one live, is dipped into the bloody water and then used to sprinkle onto the metzora, along also with a crimson thread. The birds, to me, are reminiscent of the Exodus. One bird was slaughtered - this represents Egypt - the bird which was dipped into the blood and used to spring was then set free into the wild - this represents God’s freeing of the Israelites. Here is a further symbol of distinction. One bird is killed, its life drained from it (the Torah tells us that blood symbolizes life). Another bird is dipped in that blood, and is then set free. In Egypt, God sheds the blood of the Egyptian firstborn on the same night that the Israelites are redeemed and distinguished as God’s “firstborn nation.” The crimson thread is reminiscent of the story of Tamar giving birth to twins Perez and Zerah. Zerah’s hand emerges from the womb first, rendering him the rightful firstborn. To distinguish between the rightful firstborn and the other brother, the midwife ties a crimson thread on the hand that emerges. I am not sure about what the cedar wood, which is also dipped into the blood, could symbolize. Lastly, I want to add that the water in the vessel is described specifically as “chayim”, or living. Water is a source of life, and it is mixed with blood, the symbol of a being’s life, and sprinkled on the metzora. It is a sort of rebirth. The metzora probably looks a bit like a newborn covered in that bloody liquid. Just like a distinction was made during the birth of Perez and Zerah, just like a distinction was made during the birth of the Israelite nation in Egypt, so a distinction is made between the pure and impure during the rebirth of the metzora. Just like a baby boy must wait 7 days before he is fully integrated into Israel by means of a bris, and just like a mother is impure for 7 days after birth, so too does the metzora have to wait 7 days before fully reintegrating into life by staying out of their tent for 7 days after the sprinkling ceremony. Then, there purification is complete. They spoke evil speech, they were isolated, and they were reborn. The metzora, or anybody in isolation, has time to reflect in solitude. Through that reflection, they can make mental breakthroughs and essentially become a new person. The leave behind their old, gossiping self, and are reborn again, pure.

Lastly, some have noted that tzaraat mimics, or is, a decaying of boundaries. It is a decaying of walls, or clothing, or skin - all of them boundaries. This is what bodies and buildings do when they die. Their barriers break down, decay, crumble. Just like a dead body creates impurity, so too does tzaraat. It is the breaking down of the barriers between life and earth. Living flesh decomposes into dirt. With this purification ceremony, though, the metzora is rededicated to life. The distinction is made once more. The boundaries are restored. I could go on a whole rant about how evil speech breaks down boundaries, but I’ll leave that up to you.

Ok, really last thing. Just as a baby needs time in isolation in the womb to develop from a formless blob to a solid thing with borders, just like Jacob's descendants needed time isolated in Egypt to form into a solidly defined, distinct nation with borders, so too does the gossiper need time in isolation, so that he becomes somebody whose mouth recognizes no boundaries, to somebody who knows when to keep words in and respect the boundaries of privacy. The gossiper is isolated outside the camp, and then reborn as a person who respects boundaries and is fully integrated into society after seven days. Similarly, seven weeks after the birth of the nation of Israel in the Exodus, they acquire the Torah, reaching their ultimate form. Similarly, seven days after birth, a baby boy is integrated fully into Israel with a bris. I suppose this all goes back to the original birth. God distinguished light from darkness, the waters from the land, the waters above from those below, and created forms from the formless. In 7 days this was complete.

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