Parashat Metzora

Recipe For Purity

An internal process of repentance must accompany the external, physical cleansing for leprosy.

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A Word

Rashi (a medieval French commentator) is highly helpful when trying to tackle the question of why certain ingredients would have been included in the purification rite of the leper. A close look at the ingredients named in verse 4 will show how the text views the nature of leprosy. In the case of this disease, there is a direct correlation between certain behaviors before the onset of leprosy and the remedies to cleanse the individual afterwards.

First, we will address the matter of the "two live clean birds." Rashi says, "Since afflictions come about because of malicious talk, which is an act of verbal twittering, therefore, there was required for [the sufferer's] purification, birds that constantly twitter with chirping of sound." Rashi here invokes the crime of "lashon hara" or malicious speech.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 4a-b, the crime of "lashon hara" is the equivalent of idolatry, licentiousness, and murder COMBINED. Soiling someone else's reputation by spreading such speech is a high crime; the punishment of leprosy fits this crime by spreading sores over the body of the gossiper. Just as gossip infects and taints the lives of its subjects, so does leprosy infect and taint the gossiper. Thus the purification rite must include twittering birds to symbolize the leper's missteps.

Next: the matter of the cedar wood. Rashi explains this ingredient by saying, "Because afflictions come because of haughtiness." As such, including such a high, lovely tree in the mixture will remind the leper that he thought highly of himself before he was punished with his disease.

In this context, cedars become associated with arrogance. This goes against the grain of the typically positive cedar imagery in Jewish tradition. Psalm 92:13, for example, declares, "The righteous bloom like a date-palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon." In the Song of Songs, the lover is described with the breathless words, "He is majestic as Lebanon, Stately as the cedars" (5:15). In Genesis Rabbah 15, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman names cedars as among the seven best "sturdy trees" to be found.

Ironically, Rashi plays on these valences to show exactly how an individual should NOT conduct himself. Beyond serving as a reminder of haughtiness, the cedar's presence could also be interpreted as showing the leper the heights he might aspire to regain once he is cleansed of his impurities.

The final two components, crimson stuff and hyssop, can be interpreted together as symbols of ultimate lowliness. Rashi says, "What is his remedy, that he should be cured? He should lower himself from his arrogance like a worm and like hyssop." How does Rashi get from "crimson stuff" to a worm? Pouncing on the double meaning of "tola'at," which means dyed wool, Rashi reminds us that "tola'at" can also mean "worm." Thus, the crimson piece of wool stands for the humble worm, perhaps the creature most opposite to the noble cedar. Hyssop, too, is a low plant that grows close to the ground.

Do these ingredients really comprise the remedy to purify and cure a leper, transforming him from "tameh" to "tahor?" If anything, Rashi says, these items--twittering birds, cedar wood, crimson wool, and hyssop--will remind the leper of the behaviors that got him in trouble in the first place.

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Hannah Pressman is a doctoral student in modern Hebrew literature at New York University, where she has earned an advanced certificate in Poetics and Theory. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program, she is currently a MacCracken Fellow at NYU. She has presented her research at National Association of Professors of Hebrew conferences, and her reviews of contemporary Israeli literature have appeared in Lilith Magazine.