HaMirpeset Shelanu 284: From Lev Gray
Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Rosh Bogrim 2017 Lev Gray. From Cincinnati, Ohio, Lev is currently a junior at Yale University studying philosophy. Lev was a camper for six summers and this will be his fourth summer on staff. Reflections on Parashat Tazria-Metzora by Lev Gray
The central focus of Tazria-Metzora is an affliction called tzara’at. We learn that tzara’at appears on human flesh. Before looking to rabbinic commentary, it’s worth noting that a straightforward (p’shat) reading pulls us in two different directions.
On the one hand, tzara’at is a natural and physical affliction. The symptoms are incredibly detailed physical particularities: the color of a hair and the spreading and depth of coloration. Appropriately, the affliction demands a physical ritual purification: isolating oneself from the community, shaving hair. Unlike normal skin diseases, however, tzara’at also afflicts garments and, bizarrely, houses. In such cases, a physical ritual is also required: burning a garment or removing stones from a house.
On the other hand, tzara’at is linked to repentance for wrongdoing. The purification process demands an asham (guilt) offering. Such offerings are generally reserved for unintentional transgressions. Moreover, the Torah explicitly notes that that the guilt-offering is “like the sin offering” that repents for sins (Lev. 14:10). Even more dramatic, however, is the parallel between the ritual to purify tzara’at and that of Yom Kippur. To purify a person or a house afflicted by tzara’at, a kohen (priest) takes two birds: one is slaughtered and the other is set free towards the field and towards the outside of the city (Lev. 14:7, 53). In next week’s parashah (spoiler alert!), the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) takes two goats on Yom Kippur: one is slaughtered and the other is sent off to azazel, the wilderness, to atone for the sins of the Jewish people. Hence, the parallel structure hints that tzara’at is not merely a natural affliction, but is linked to atonement.
Many rabbinic commentators interpret tzara’at to be a supernatural affliction and the physical purification process to represent a spiritual one as well. According to Rashi, the physical steps of the purification process symbolize humbling oneself to repent for the misdeeds of slander and haughtiness (Rashi on Leviticus 14:4). Overwhelmingly, rabbinic commentators view tzara’at as an appropriate consequence for human misdeeds.
How, then, are we to understand tzara’at on a house? Did the house itself act sinfully? As hard as I tried, I haven’t been able to find a source for such a position.
Instead, commentators such as Maimonides suggest that tzara’at is a supernatural and spiritual consequence for the misdeed of the homeowner. He argues that the house obtains tzara’at if an owner selfishly keeps his house to himself alone and does not share his property. While it teaches a good moral, the suggestion appears lacking to me. Why would God’s punishment involve condemning houses to an otherwise human affliction, as opposed to a different punishment? Why, in this situation, does a house itself need atonement?
I think the beginnings of a more satisfying answer can be found in the mystical Hasidic tradition. The Tzidkas HaTzadik is a nineteenth century text written by Rabbi Zadok HaKohen Rabinowitz, a Hasidic thinker who lived modestly in Lublin and owned a used clothing store. Zadok HaKohen teaches us that our possessions or property, broadly construed, all emanate from the essence of our soul. Indeed, all inanimate objects (such as the stones of a house) grow as living things from roots found in human soul. In other words, the realm of the human soul does not end at the flesh or skin. It extends to our loved ones, our pets, the fruits of our labor, and the objects we play with.
On the surface, we might have a purely romantic notion of our soul encompassing multitudes. However, Tazria-Metzora teaches us that there is also a flip side: we cannot easily contain the ugliness of our own actions and wrongdoings. We cannot do wrong and then bear the guilt alone. With this framework, we can reinterpret Maimonides’ earlier moral lesson against selfishness. To keep our house to ourselves is to fracture our own soul. To purify our soul, we must learn that the stones of our houses, too, are alive: they experience both with deep companionship and with painful wrongdoing.
Going to camp taught me that self-transformation means the transformation of a far-reaching self: it extends to bunkmates, siblings, and each and every staff member, you’re your own counselor to a visiting educator to the college student from Eastern Europe helping to clear dishes at the end of a meal; it extends to the work we do in Nagarut (carpentry) and Drama; it extends to the Kikar and lake and cabins that come alive every June. Life at camp is one of joy, but also of responsibility: we must sometimes take apart the house of our collective soul, to purify it, stone by stone.