photograph of man's hands with vitiligo
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Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Healing From the Mysterious and Incomprehensible

The biblical practice of tzaarat offers insights into the grieving process.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah, is primarily concerned with a peculiar biblical affliction called tzaraat (tzah-RAH-at). Commonly mistranslated as leprosy — the Greek translation of the Hebrew, lepra, sounds a bit like the word leprosy — tzaraat is frequently characterized by white patches of skin, something modern scholars have suggested is similar to vitiligo. This week’s portion is primarily concerned with how to recognize tzaraat, prevent its spread and purify someone afflicted with it. 

We might wonder why so much of the Torah’s attention is devoted to this subject. After all, the Torah is not especially concerned with medicine. Most descriptions of ailments — from the sixth plague on the Egyptians to Job’s affliction — serve narrative purposes and don’t impart significant medical knowledge. But the Torah devotes two full chapters to the subject of tzaraat, which we learn doesn’t just affect people, but materials like wood and cloth and even entire homes.

This is because tzaraat is not really a disease in the medical sense, though it produces physical symptoms. Instead, it’s a kind of spiritual ailment with physical manifestations. Tzaraat is hard to understand in part because there is no precise modern parallel. But arguably the best one we have is the experience of loss and grief. 

Like tzaraat, grief is a psycho-spiritual blow that causes physical suffering. Part of the cure for tzaraat was physical isolation. Grief too can suck us into a new and unfamiliar reality, making us feel isolated from the rest of the world. The Torah tells us that when someone has been diagnosed with tzaraat, they tear their clothes and call out “Impure! Impure!” Likewise, to this day Jews tear their clothes in response to learning of the death of a loved one (or wear a torn black ribbon pinned to their garments). And though those in mourning do not announce themselves as impure so that others can avoid contamination, many do find that some in their orbit will distance themselves anyway — almost as if loss and grief are contagious.

Other aspects of the Torah’s guidance for handling those afflicted with tzaraat and effecting their return to the community are also instructive for those coping with grief and loss, perhaps none more so than this: There is no substitute for time. A person afflicted with tzaraat must first isolate themselves outside the camp and wait. Like grief, it is never resolved instantaneously.

But the Torah prescribes more than just waiting. After a time, the priest takes two live birds, slaughtering one and dipping the other — along with a cedar stick, a hyssop branch and a piece of red cloth — in its blood. The mixture is then sprinkled on the afflicted person, who must then shave, bathe and wait some more. Then there are several more sacrifices, and the blood of the last one is daubed on the right ear, thumb and thumb toe of the person reentering the community. It’s all quite strange and among the most elaborate of all the priestly rituals, but perhaps well-suited for an affliction whose origins are shrouded in mystery and which we are at pains to truly understand today. 

Grief too is a thing of mystery. Grief too typically requires some period of retreat from normal life to heal. And grief too often inspires a response that may appear outwardly incomprehensible. The route to healing and re-entry is rarely quick and often complicated. 

Tzaraat is no longer a part of Jewish practice. Even in late antiquity, the Tosefta tells us, it was no longer being diagnosed. The classical rabbis studied it in order to better understand God’s law, not because they expected to apply their knowledge. Centuries later, we understand it even less than they did. But the phenomenon of a psycho-spiritual ailment that takes time and often unusual steps, unparalleled by anything else most of us are likely to experience in our lives, to heal — this remains a part of life. And in this way, the Torah’s guidance on tzaraat can still prove instructive. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on April 21, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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