Parshat Metzorah: From Biography to Biology


Metzorah – Emitting Evil

Miriam was struck with “tzara’at” as a punishment for speaking negatively about her brother, Moshe (Bamidbar 12:1- 16). From this the midrash learns that the bio-spiritual ailment “tzara’at” is a punishment for speaking slander (lashon harah). The midrash explains that the word metzorah (someone struck with tzara’at), comes from the words “motzei rah” – “emitting evil,” i.e. speaking badly about others. The Kli Yakar in explaining that the term “motzei rah” not only describes the sin, but the punishment as well, which exposes the evil inside him. As Rabbi Josh Hoffman has pointed out “Motzei rah” also hints to the remedy. The purification process of the metzorah allows him to externalize the pent-up evil and free himself from it.

The transgression and the remedy are closely tied to one another. The physical malady creates an opportunity for introspection and thus, through the punishment of tzara’at, he can be freed from his inner evil. The punishment forces the metzorah to address his negative qualities and cope with them, just as the outbreak of physical disease can highlight the underlying root cause of the illness and enable the patient to progress towards a cure. When the negativity is not let out, but instead lies dormant, the issues become more severe.

Oscar Wilde’s book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, teaches of the inherent danger involved when external expression does portray what’s on the inside, when the internal evil is not outwardly viewed. Dorian Gray is a young man, blessed with good looks and charm; his facial features evoke good nature and innocence. As a friend paints his portrait, Dorian contemplates the aesthetic beauty of his image and realizes that on the canvas his likeness will remain forever young and beautiful, but in reality he will age and his youthful beauty will eventually fade away. Dorian wishes to trade places with his own likeness so that he himself will never age, while his portrait will grow older, its beauty dwindling with the years. And so it happens; over time, Dorian becomes corrupt, but people continue to trust him because of his innocent appearance.

Imperfections in Others and Ourselves

Depressed Man in FieldThe metzorah experiences the pain that he caused to others. By speaking negatively of his fellow man, he caused his friend to suffer social isolation. The metzorah, in turn, must experience similar isolation. Tzara’at distances the metzorah from his immediate surroundings, because of his external appearance – his body physically covered in tzara’at, his hair unkempt, and his clothing torn (as per Vayikra 13:25).  There are social/spiritual implications as well – everyone knows the cause of the bio-spiritual malaise.

The metzorah must declare himself impure, shouting “tameh! tameh!”, when approached by his fellow man (ibid). The Shlah (Rav Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz zt”l) explains as follows: Instead of discussing the faults of others, the metzorah is forced to contemplate his own flaws. The metzorah’s ability to address his own weaknesses is a positive step towards accepting the shortcomings of others. When a person is conscience of his own imperfections, he can better empathize with others and accept them with their limitations.

The purification process of the metzorah involves seclusion: “All the days that the ailment is on him, he shall be unclean; he is unclean. He shall dwell alone, his living space is outside the camp” (Vayikra 13:46). Forced seclusion brings the metzorah to long for the company of others. Outcast from society, he no longer takes social involvement for granted. Afterwards, he can return to society with a more positive outlook.

The Chattering of Birds

After the metzorah is healed of his physical ailment, the kohen takes two birds, slaughters one and sends the other free “to an open field” (Vayikra 14:7). The midrash explains the symbolic significance of the birds in the purification ritual: “he spoke lashon harah, therefore, the Torah says [to take] ‘birds’ whose voices go out” (Tanchuma M’tzorah 8). Rashi (Vayikra 14:4) elaborates: “Since these ailments come on account of lashon harah, an act of chattering, the purification must be [through] birds, which are constantly chattering and chirping.” Just as psychodrama gives concrete expression to the patient’s inner psychological process, the birds, one slaughtered while the other is sent free, represent the process of the metzorah liberating himself from his compulsive need to speak lashon harah.

Body and Soul

Through tzara’at, the Torah makes a fascinating connection between the body and soul. In her book, Anatomy of the Spirit, Caroline Myss claims that our biographical narrative becomes our biological reality. Emotions, thoughts, and lifestyle all directly influence our health. Throughout her book, she analyzes the fundamental values of the soul according to the system of the sefirot of the kabbalistic tradition and the eastern system of chakras. According to her theory, offence to these core values are expressed through the body as well as the soul. It follows that we are, in a sense, active participants in our own ailments and necessarily have the ability, even the responsibility, to take an active role in our own healing processes. Even our most physical ailments are rooted in the spiritual realm – and therein lies the cure.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach


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