This week’s double portion is known as the most obscure and hardest to relate to. How do we give a meaningful teaching on a disease that we are unaware of exactly what it is and for which the laws governing it have not been in place since the destruction of the Temple? Though commonly translated as “leprosy,” that does not appear to be what tzaraat was, as this was a disease that could affect a person’s clothing and home as well as his skin. We also do not know exactly how a person was cured of tzaraat. What we do know is that in Leviticus 14:14, a person afflicted goes to the Kohen who takes the blood of the asham, or guilt offering, and puts it on the tip of the aflictee’s right ear, his hand and he big toe of his right foot. The Kohen also sprinkles oil on the right ear, hand and big toe of his right foot and then offers the hatat, or sin offering, to make atonement for the one afflicted.
This is all great, but what does it have to do with us? I gained some insight from recently reading Rabbi Martin Cohen of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center’s book The Boy, The Door and the Ox. Rabbi Cohen references Mishnah Negaim which asks what a person does who does not have a right ear? The Mishnah says ein lo tohorah olamit, that such a person can never become pure! This has widespread implications, for it means that this person would forever be isolated from his community, never be able to offer sacrifices and never be allowed to eat food in a holy state. Because he cannot literally follow what is in the Torah, and have blood from the sacrifice or oil put on his right ear, he can never rejoin the community.
Fortunately there are other opinions that are given after the original in the Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer said that for a man without a right ear one can designate the spot where the right ear would be on the man and thus he can become purified. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has a more radical view, proclaiming that one can put the blood and oil on the man’s left ear. Better to use the other ear than to render the man forever impure!
Some might remember my sermon about the rebellious son and notice that there too things were taken literally. That section of the Bible said that the parents grab the son, which the rabbis took as saying that they must both have both their hands. It also said “our son will not listen to our voice,” which the rabbis took as they must speak in one voice. Such literalism there was meant to exclude a son from being considered rebellious. Here it is meant to widen the possibility for a man without an ear to become tahor (pure) and return to a normal lifestyle.
Why should we care about this? After all, today we are all considered tamei (impure) as there are no sacrifices at the Temple that can “purify” us. I believe that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are both recognizing that we don’t live in a literalist world but rather in a world with personalized situations and extenuating circumstances. Because of this, we must decide whether we want to follow the literalism of the biblical verse and render someone forever impure or whether we want to recognize the situation and make an exception to render the person pure. I strongly believe that the latter approach is what we want to achieve.
This reminds me of a story told by Rabbi Berel Wein about a man asking a rabbi if a chicken was kosher. After researching the situation the rabbi still was uncertain as to the chicken’s kashrut. For some the obvious approach would have been to declare the chicken treyf (unkosher) and have the man buy a new one. That was not the approach taken by this rabbi. The approach the rabbi took was to first look at the person and see if he could afford to buy a new chicken. If he could, the rabbi would say that it was treyf, but if not he would say it was kosher. What this story teaches us is that one needs to consider the situation and the people involved before jumping to a conclusion.
The reason I believe Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statements are listed is to give people the option of doing what they can to rectify a difficult situation, that doing something is better than doing nothing. As Rabbi Cohen puts it “When you can’t do what Scripture says you must do, is it better to walk away and do nothing at all? Or is it better to do something else, something similar or reminiscent or analogous, something invented specifically to demonstrate allegiance to the spirit of the law if not the letter?” I view the latter, one’s spirit and one’s kavanah (intentionality) as having great import, and that is a lesson that we can learn from an often glossed-over detail from this portion. It’s an issue we should think about whenever a biblical verse appears to challenge the world in which we live today.