Few people turn cartwheels at the prospect of reading Metzora. We generally find the notions of tum’ah (ritual impurity or uncleanliness) and tahara (ritual purity or cleanliness) difficult to conceive, and the rituals pertaining to purification arcane and incomprehensible. I once heard someone compare tum’ah to “cooties” (remember that from second grade?) – you cannot see them, but everyone in second grade recognizes who has cooties and who doesn’t, and there are elaborate rules about how they are contracted and how one rids oneself of them.
A more sophisticated approach is to view tum’ah as negative energy flowing between heaven and earth, deriving from death (or anything that is evocative of death) or that which doesn’t fit neatly into the natural order as God is understood to have created it. Accordingly tahara is positive, life-promoting energy flowing between heaven and earth. Tum’ah and tahara are still difficult to get a fix on.
The concern with tum’ah and tahara is tied up with other biblical concerns, specifically the laws of kashrut (found in parshat Shemini, Leviticus chapter 11) and childbirth (found in parshat Tazria, Leviticus chapter 12). A midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah 14) links the two together and ties them to Creation:
R. Simlai teaches: just as the creation of humanity followed that of animals, beasts, and birds, the rules pertaining to humans are presented after that of animals, beasts and birds. That is why, This is the instruction for animals [that may be eaten] (Leviticus 11:46 - 47) precedes, When a woman who has conceived gives birth (Leviticus 12:2).R. Simlai frames the rules of both kashrut and impurity in childbirth using the story of Creation in Genesis (chapter 1). He tells us that just as animals are created before humans, so too rules pertaining to animals (specifically, which may be eaten, and which are forbidden as food) are presented in the Book of Leviticus before the rules pertaining to human beings.
This seems a most peculiar observation. We might be inclined to say: so what? Both sets of rules are for humans, and there seems little connection between eating animals and human childbirth, after all. (All you men who happily ate for two alongside your wives while they were pregnant are the exception.)
There are several possibilities here.
One possibility is that R. Simlai has in mind that the rules of kashrut and impurity due to childbirth might strike anyone as “artificial” and an imposition by the priests on the personal lives of the people. If that is the case, R. Simlai tells us: no, these rules are imbedded in the very fabric of creation. They are not extraneous, but rather fundamental to God’s creation and intention.
A second possibility is that R. Simlai is telling us that humanity is distinct and separate from the animal kingdom because only humans are required to follow prescribed rituals and practices, and adhere to limitations in their diet and behavior set down by God.
A third possibility seems, at first glance, to contract the second possibility above. The third possibility is that R. Simlai seeks to impress upon us our place in Creation – not separate and apart, but integrated into the whole of Creation. That has profound implications for our relationship with the natural world, one that ought to command far more of our attention than it does.
With the second possibility, we are apart from Creation. With the third possibility, we are a part of Creation.
Thus far, I have barely mentioned this week’s parashah. R. Simlai’s midrash speaks to the two preceding Torah portions. Metzora explains – in excrutiating detail – the procedure for purification of one afflicted with tzara’at (an eruptive skin condition). Now Torah explains that tzara’at can extend beyond our bodies to…
When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house… (Leviticus 14:34-36)A house? How can a house can be struck by an eruptive skin condition? The commentary in Etz Hayim tells us:
The appearance of tzara-at in the stones of a house was a mysterious event. Some Sages doubted it ever happened, and others consigned it to a distant past. Commentators consider the afflicted house (ha-bayit ha-m’nugga) to be a moral warning rather than a natural consequence, even more emphatically than they consider cases of skin disease to be a moral warning. (Etz Hayim, p. 664)In other words: this has no basis in physical reality, so we interpret it as a spiritual/moral phenomenon. I’m totally on board with that approach. When I line this up with R. Simlai’s comment about animals and people being integral to creation, the image of the bayit (house) that emerges is the planet earth – our global home. There was a time when “half way around the world” meant too far away to be connected, but that is no longer the case. What we do to the environment in one place on planet Earth has repercussions “half way around the world.” The polar cap is melting, destroying the habitat for many species. The sea levels are rising, and salinity changing. The Gulf Stream that protects Europe from bitter cold is shifting. Our heavy use of chlorofluorocarbons is punching a hole in the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere; the upper ozone layer protects us from electromagnetic radiation. Clear-cutting forests destroys the habitats of countless species and causes soil erosion; destroying vegetation along the seashore depletes a resource that protects against hurricanes. Increasing levels of pollution may well be a cause of increased cancer rates, autoimmune conditions, and more. And all the while we produce more, consume more, and discard more in landfills.
We can no longer speak about "the world" and “the animals” and "human beings" -- as if they are separate entities -- without realizing that our lives and welfare are integrally interwoven with the well-being of the entire planet. The bayit (house) is afflicted with a plague we cause by our unwillingness to respond to R. Simlai’s prescient warning that everything goes back to Creation, and creation must be cared for and renewed at every moment. We cannot live apart from Creation; we must become fully a apart of Creation.
Above, I suggested several interpretations of R. Simlai’s midrash. One was that we are apart from Creation. Another was that we are a part of Creation. I would suggest to you that both pertain: we are a part of Creation in that our live and well-being cannot be sustained apart from the well-being of planet Earth. We are apart from Creation in that we, alone, of all God’s creatures, are tasked with the responsibility to be responsible stewards of God’s Creation (as Adam was charged with tending and tilling the Garden of Eden, so are we charged with the stewardship of Earth). And that brings us to the first interpretation of R. Simlai’s teaching: perhaps one of the purposes of rituals and practices that sometimes seem bizarre and often lacking a rational foundation is to inspire in us a mindfulness in all that we do, including our relationships with the natural world, with animals, and with other people.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman