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Tazria-Metzora: Body as Temple

Va’yedaber YHVH el Moshe leimor: zot tih’yeh torat ha’metzora b’yom tohorato.

YHVH said to Moses: “This is the Torah (instruction) for a person with the skin affliction Metzora so that they may be restored to wholeness. (Leviticus 14:1)

This week (and the next) we read a double portion of Torah. The extra reading is a function of the lunar calendar that we follow, which necessitates alternating between a 12-month year and occasionally a 13-month “leap year” in order to remain aligned with the seasons. During the leap years the double portions of Torah get broken out into single portions to accommodate the extra weeks that get added to the calendar. (Now you know!)

Tazria and Metzora are among the most obscure sections of the Torah. They describe a variety of physical conditions that make a person temporarily unfit to be close to God, and the rituals required in order to restore that person to fitness. From our modern rational perspective these chapters appear to be some strange and primitive medical manual. But as I explained several weeks ago, to understand Leviticus we must employ metaphorical and analogical rather than logical reasoning. The world, the human community, and the human body are all dwelling places for the Divine glory. The task of the Children of Israel is to maintain a society in which that Divine glory can be felt and perceived: “You shall be holy, for I, YHVH, am holy.” “Build me a holy dwelling, that I might dwell in your midst.” “You shall be a nation of priests, a holy people.”

What does “holy” mean? In English, holy derives from the Old English word that also gives us “whole” and “heal”. Holiness is wholeness. In order to be a dwelling place for God, we must be whole. We must have integrity. Tazria and Metzora describe conditions in which our integrity is damaged. The Torah describes a condition called tzara’at (incorrectly rendered as “leprosy”). Tzara’at can afflict a person, a garment or even a house. It breaks up the integrity of the skin, or cloth, or walls with discoloration. Metaphorically tzara’at appears to be an outer manifestation of inner loss of integrity. The body, the home or the community, rather than maintaining a secure dwelling place for Divine energy, has become leaky and drafty, unable to host the Divine Presence.

According to Leviticus, the metzora, the one afflicted with tzara’at, must leave the camp and wait seven days. The cohen (which means “priest”), whose role is to maintain the dwelling place for God in the Israelite camp, carefully inspects the metzora to see if they have healed. If their skin is uniform once again, the cohen leads them through an elaborate ritual of reintegration into the community. The ritual includes an offering to God. The Hebrew term for offering is korban, which means “drawing near.” Healed and whole, the individual is now able to be intimate with God once more.

Again, metaphorically, we might say that an inner state of disconnection or fragmentation has been resolved, and focus and energy have been restored. If our energy and attention is distracted, leaking, dissipated, we cannot remain aware of or address the great majesty and mystery in which we dwell and which dwells within each of us. The cohen might be thought of as the spiritual healer who examines us carefully and guides us back into connection with the Divine.

I invite you to think about the ways that you restore a sense of wholeness to yourself when you feel fragmented. As you restore your focus, may you experience the grace, the goodness and the speechless awe that comes with the awareness of being filled with God, filled with Life Unfolding.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan