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Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Parashat Tazria and the following parasha, Metzora, deal with issues of ritual purity and impurity, starting with ritual impurity after childbirth. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with being "unclean" physically, but was a spiritual state that prevented one from entering into holy areas. Similarly, the skin affliction that is discussed at length is not the biological disease leprosy but rather something that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem. This condition is called tzara’at; a person with it is called a metzora. A negah is a more general word meaning some kind of outbreak on one’s body or clothing.
It’s important to remember that all these rules, which seem so arcane and barbaric to us, were part of our ancestor’s religious system. They were not merely the medical knowledge of the day. The Torah seems very concerned about bringing people back into the camp who would otherwise be ostracized or expelled.
"The kohen (priest) shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh….and declare him ritually impure" (Leviticus 13:3).
Let me say again: The system of purity and impurity was about religion, not about disease, per se. The priests were to examine certain kinds of skin blemishes and make a declaration that someone was either ritually pure or impure, in which case that person had various kinds of rituals to perform, depending on the severity of the impurity.
What strikes me about this verse is that only the priests were to declare someone ritually impure–this was not a matter for just anybody to decide. (Cf. Deuteronomy 21:5, for example.)
It’s easy to understand why: If neighbors were allowed to declare each other impure, there could be all kinds of panic and nasty recriminations, and people might use this weapon for personal gain or revenge. It’s hard to be objective about someone’s problems if your life is bound up in theirs–even today, the mental and physical health professions insist on certain boundaries around the personal relations of patients and caregivers.
Reminding ourselves that tzara’at was the physical manifestation of a spiritual condition, I’d like to suggest that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the fact that the Torah authorizes only the priests to make a judgment of impurity. All too often, we think we know what’s going on with another person: they eat too much, they drink too much, they’re too lazy, they’re workaholics, they’re too permissive/too strict with their children, they should do this, they should do that…. The list goes on and on.
Quite often, however, we simply can’t, and mustn’t, judge the spiritual, physical, or moral condition of another person–we usually don’t have all the facts. We may not be experts, and personal relationships may make objectivity impossible. We might declare another person "outside the camp," because of their behavior or appearance, but we might be seeing only the outside appearance of things, without the subtleties. To me, the Torah’s message in this verse is: don’t think you can diagnose your neighbor’s problems so easily.
Of course, it’s also true that a person cannot declare himself or herself a metzora, either. Denial can work in two ways: We can refuse to see a problem in ourselves, until we are presented with unavoidable, straightforward evidence, and we can also think things are worse than they are, until someone else tells us there is real hope.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t have real insight into our own problems, and the problems of those around us–I’m only suggesting that sometimes it pays to leave the exact diagnosis of a mental, spiritual or physical condition to those who can be both objective and helpful. A busybody thinks they know what’s wrong with everybody around them; a compassionate and loving person sees that people get the help they need, without presuming that they themselves have all the answers.
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