Metzora: A Diseased Family

April 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Metzora, Tazria | 1 Comment
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Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.

There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.

If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)

tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.

Leukoderma

Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community.  When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.

The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).

Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure.  After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)

Red mold

Green mold

yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1

adamdamot (אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2

In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days.  If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump.  The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump.  Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior.  (Leviticus 14:37-42)

If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)

Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years.  In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.

At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage.  But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3

So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

Despair, by Edvard Munch, 1894

In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair.  He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away.  And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.

So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest.  He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can.  Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.

If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.

Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics.  And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.

Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.

But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary.  People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.

May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Yarak (יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.

2   Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam (דָּם) = blood.

3  12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society,  in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.)  Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).

Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):

…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)

And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)

And I sent the tzirah before you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)

In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.

Haftarat Tazria—2 Kings: A Religious Conversion

April 6, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:42-5:19.

What inspires someone to convert to a religion?

For Na-aman, an Aramaean general from Damascus who converts to the religion of Israel in this week’s haftarah, the quick answer is that he decides to convert after an Israelite prophet heals him. But the full story runs deeper.

soldier 2Na-aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man [who stood] before his lord with a high rank, because God had given victory to Aram, and the man was a powerful warrior—[and] a man with skin disease. (2 Kings 5:1)

His skin disease is tzara-at , which is a serious ritual impurity in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria; someone who has it must live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, and cover his upper lip—even though the disease is not contagious. The rules in Aram may have been more lenient, but we can assume the disfiguring disease carried some social stigma.

And a raiding party of Aram had gone out and captured from the land of Israel a young na-arah, and she [stood] before the wife of Na-aman. And she said to her lady: If only my lord [stood] before the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would remove his skin disease. (2 Kings 5:2-3)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = slave-woman; any girl or young woman during the stage after puberty but before her first pregnancy.

The slave-girl is the one who knows what Na-aman needs to do to get rid of his disfiguring skin disease, a source of social stigma in the ancient Near East. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, who then tells his master, the king of Aram.

And he came and told his lord, saying: This and this she said, the na-arah who is from the land of Israel. (2 Kings 5:4)

The king of Aram writes a letter for Na-aman to take to the king of Israel, perhaps to guarantee his safe passage through a foreign country. Eventually Na-aman and his servants arrive at the house of the prophet Elisha.

Jordan River

Jordan River

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the skin disease.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:9-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings; A Sign of Arrogance.)

On the other hand, he is willing to listen to advice from servants, including the Israelite girl who told him about Elisha in the first place. This time the grown men traveling with Na-aman as servants advise him.

The Cleansing of Naaman, woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica

The Cleansing of Naaman,
woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica

But his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a na-ar, and he was ritually-pure. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:13-15)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave; any boy or unmarried young man. (The male equivalent of na-arah.)

The Talmud considers Na-aman’s statement a declaration of religious conversion. Before Na-aman makes this declaration, he is compared to a boy or a slave, put on the same footing as his Israelite na-arah. Only from that position can he actually meet the prophet and “stand before” him, as earlier in the story subordinates stood before their masters. And only now does Na-aman know that the god of Israel is the only god on earth.

What gives him this knowledge or belief? I think it is not just the miraculous healing he experiences, but the fact that he receives healing only by setting aside his identity as an important Aramaean general and becoming an obedient “boy”.

And Na-aman said: Will it not be given, please, to your servant, enough soil to burden a pair of mules?—because your servant will never again make a rising-offering or an animal sacrifice to other gods, only to God. (2 Kings 5:17)

The only way Na-aman knows how to worship a god is to make offerings in the land of that god. Since he must return to Damascus to serve his king, he asks permission to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him. Elisha says Go in peace.

*

My own conversion to Judaism 30 years ago was mostly—but not entirely—different from Na-aman’s conversion. I was brought up as an atheist, but during my twenties I felt restless and dissatisfied. As a philosophy major in college, I had reasoned my way to the conclusion that the standard definition of God was contradictory and therefore described an impossibility. Yet every once in a while I was surprised by a flash of intuition that the universe was one and alive.  It was a sudden gut feeling, not a rational idea.  I felt an increasing need for something like religion, for some other connection with the ineffable. Thus my longing for a religion came not from my head, but from my guts.

In western religions and culture, the body is often considered inferior to the mind. We assume that the mind makes a decision and the body carries it out, like a servant or a beast of labor.

But sometimes the body speaks first. The great general Na-aman’s own body develops a skin disease. Then the least of his servants, the captive Israelite girl, tells him who to go to for a cure. And he follows her advice.

When he arrives in the foreign land of Israel, he is instructed first by the prophet’s servant, then by his own servants. If he had not obeyed them and bathed in the Jordan, Na-aman would have gone home unhealed and unconverted.

If I had not listened to my gut feelings, even though I viewed them as inferior to my rational mind, I would have remained a dissatisfied atheist with a dry life. Instead I began reading about various religions and their attitudes toward life in this world. And I fell in love with Judaism, which seemed to share my irrational, gut conviction that nothing is more important than doing the right thing, regardless of any possible future reward.

It was a good match. I converted 30 years ago, and I am still a passionate Jew.

Part of my conversion was to immerse myself underwater in a mikveh—rather like Na-aman’s seven immersions in the Jordan River. Then I affirmed my inner knowledge that all divinity is one by reading the Shema out loud before three witnesses. This was not so different from Na-aman telling Elisha: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel.

I was not brought up to slaughter and burn animals for God, thank God. But perhaps whenever I pray with other Jews, I am symbolically worshiping God on the soil of our religion. And even as my mind occupies itself with translating the Hebrew prayers into meanings I can accept, my body-servant, my heart and gut, rise in exaltation.

 

Tazria and Lekh-Lekha: On the Eighth Day

April 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Tazria | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Circumcision in Egypt circa 2400 B.C.E.

Circumcision in Egypt
circa 2400 B.C.E.

The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision.  It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E..  Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.

However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage.  The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.

The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men.  (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.)  Then God declares:

U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you.  At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)

Circumcision of Isaac, Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

Circumcision of Isaac,
Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.

yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.

Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?

In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it.  One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces.  (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.)  If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?

The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:

A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken.  (Genesis 17:14)

Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts:  cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.

In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice.  Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.

Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)

On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)

And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed.  (Leviticus 12:4)

In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place!  Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”

Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?

The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born:  the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another.  For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day.  The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.Pigeons 2

On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born.  Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary.  These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.

According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood.  He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.

But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day.  After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant.  Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.

milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).

Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid.  In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born.  On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.

According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.

The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant.  Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E.  Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews.  The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.

The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century.  Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again.  Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day.  Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.

I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later.  To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.

But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel?  Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age.  I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys.  And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to.  Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.

One way or another, the tradition continues.

 

Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 3 Comments
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There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.

Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their period of being tamei is over). But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.

And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.

nega (נֶגַע) =  an affliction caused by the touch of God.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.

The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.

Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.

Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at. The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.

Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.

But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.

Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)

Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)

This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.

He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.

Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, like Na-aman.

Tazria: Lost in Translation

April 27, 2012 at 8:54 am | Posted in Tazria | 2 Comments

Something always gets lost in translation, at least when you translate Biblical Hebrew into English.  For example, the Torah often refers to “the hand of God”.  But many English translations say “the power of God”.  This is a legitimate translation, but it loses the poetry of the original image.

Another loss happens when a Hebrew word has two very different meanings.  Almost all translators pick the meaning that makes sense if you read the passage either as a straightforward description of an event, or as a set of instructions for carrying out laws or rituals.  They are right to do so.  Yet all too often, the English word that expresses the most straightforward meaning in that particular context does not hint at the alternative meaning.  So an extra shade of meaning is lost in translation.

As I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She forms seed”, a reference to the first section), I noticed that one section in the middle had so many words with double meanings, it told two different stories.  Here is a straightforward translation:

If the cloth has an affliction of skin-disease in it — in a cloth of wool or in a cloth of linen; or in the warp or in the woof for the linen or for the wool; or in leather or in anything crafted of leather. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-48)

And the touch is greenish or reddish in the cloth or in the leather or in the warp or in the woof or in anything crafted of leather — then it is an affliction of skin-disease, and it shall be shown to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:49)

This passage appears to refer to some sort of mildew or fungus that attacks cloth and leather, and resembles a skin disease.  The Torah then gives instructions for the examining priest to conduct tests and make a ruling about the status of the spot on the cloth or leather.  If he determines that it is indeed a skin-disease, he burns the material.  If he determines it is not, he declares it ritually pure and usable.

But the key words in this passage all have alternative meanings:

beged = cloth, garment; deception, treachery, faithlessness

tzara-at = skin disease; depression, discouragement

shti = warp, one kind of woven material; drinking

eirev = woof, weaving; mixed company, mingling

melekhet = craft, thing crafted; mission

or = leather, skin

yerakrak = greenish (from yerak = greens, herbage; spit + rak = thin, only)

adamdam = reddish (from adam = red; human + dam = blood)

Furthermore, wool in the Torah is the material associated with Canaan and the ancestors of the Israelites, while linen is an expensive Egyptian import.  And the first time “skin” appears in the Torah is when God clothes Adam and Eve in the skins of animals before sending them out of Eden.

If we translate the same passage using the alternative meanings of the Hebrew words and the associations embedded in the Torah about wool, linen, and skin (and add connecting phrases  in parentheses), this is what we get :

The faithlessness (of a person who is deceiving someone) results in  an affliction of discouragement.  (This happens) when one is being unfaithful to one’s own heritage or pretending to belong to another culture.  Or (it happens) when one is drinking (to excess), or  mingling (with the wrong people) in one’s own culture or in another culture.  One adopts the behavior of an animal, or goes on a mission that has to do with animal behavior.

And the affliction (feels as if one is) spitting (on oneself), or (as if one has) human blood (on one’s hands.  This feeling comes) while one is being unfaithful, or while one is behaving like an animal, or while one is drinking, or while one is mingling (with the wrong people),  or while one is engaged in any mission regarding animal behavior.   Then one is afflicted with discouragement and depression, and one must show it to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-49)

Now the passage refers to the psychological effects of being unfaithful, to a person or to God.  When we realize our own faithlessness is making us depressed, we must reveal ourselves to someone in the role of the priest, someone who can help us.  This person will examine the situation and decide how serious our treachery is.  Then we must either burn up our old lives and start over again, or reform our ways so we can continue our current lives in a pure and honest way.

Which interpretation of the instructions regarding a disease (or depression) in cloth (or faithlessness) is the correct one?  The person who wrote down the original Hebrew probably intended the straightforward, non-psychological meaning.  Yet traditional Jewish commentary on this chapter of Leviticus  insisted that the “disease” afflicting cloth and leather was not natural.  Two famous 12th century authorities who usually approached Torah from very different perspectives, Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) and Ramban (Rabbi Moses Nachmanides) agreed that this “disease” was actually a supernatural warning from God that the owner was doing some evil.  The problem had to be addressed not only with physical burning or washing, but with personal reform.

I suspect these traditional commentators were influenced by the various alternative meanings of the words in this passage.  Without them, the psychology underneath the arcane ritual might get lost in translation.

Tazria: Babies Versus Religion

March 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Posted in Tazria | 1 Comment

Wedged between the dietary rules at the end of last week’s Torah portion, and the rules about skin disease that occupy the rest of this week’s Torah portion, the Torah gives us brief instructions concerning a more important physical process:  childbirth.  Thus this week’s portion is called Tazria (“she makes seed”).

When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of the niddah of her menstruation she is ritually impure.  On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.  And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of taharah; she shall not touch anything holy, and she not come into the holy place, until the days of taharah are completed. And if she gives birth to a female, then there shall be ritual impurity for a pair of weeks, as in her niddah, and she shall stay 46 days over the bloodshed of taharah.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:2-5)

niddah (נִדַּה= menstruation; exclusion, separation, setting apart

taharah  (טָהֳרָה) = ritual purification process; ritual purity.

Blood has deep religious meaning in the Torah.  The blood of an animal is its nefesh, its animating soul; Israelites must not eat blood, because the blood of a slain animal belongs to God.  Soldiers must go through a purifying ritual after human blood is shed in battle.  The rituals of the portable sanctuary and the temple in Jerusalem include splashing and daubing animal blood on new priests, on the bronze altar, and even on the curtains around the ark—in order to sanctify them. Another ritual is required after menstruation.

Childbirth is also  a bloody business, and until recently it was also frighteningly dangerous.  Without modern medicine, the mother or the infant often died during or shortly after childbirth.

"Mother Rose Looking Down at her Sleeping Baby" by Mary Cassat

“Mother Rose Looking Down
at her Sleeping Baby”
by Mary Cassat

Modern commentators point out that a woman who has just given birth is totally absorbed in her baby, and cannot yet switch to the state of mind appropriate for public worship (which at that time meant bringing offerings to the altar at the “holy place” or sanctuary).  I can vouch for the single-minded absorption from my own experience.

But Israelite women would also have needed time to recover from fear of death.

I wonder how women expressed their immediate relief and gratitude to God when both mother and child lived through the birth process, and the mother held her new child for the first time?  Perhaps women invented a new prayer for that time, a prayer that is not recorded.

The ritual responses in the Torah begin seven days after the birth of a son, fourteen days after the birth of a daughter. The Torah distinguishes between an initial period of ritual impurity, when the mother is bleeding as her womb heals (one week for a son, two weeks for a daughter), and a longer period of abstention from community worship (33 days for a son, 46 days for a daughter) in which her “bloodshed” (if any) is considered purifying.  These additional days of separation may refer to symbolic blood.  Since the Torah equates an animal’s blood with its life or nefesh (animating soul), maybe the purifying “bloodshed” is a symbolic reference to the mother’s total absorption in the nefesh of her infant for the first few months.

But why is the mother given twice as long for a baby girl as for a boy?  Many commentators have  noted that a girl is destined to become a child-bearing woman, repeating the life-or-death moment of birth.  I think it’s more significant that a girl will someday menstruate, so every month she will shed blood from a genital organ–while a boy does it only once, at circumcision.  Both circumcision and menstruation are reminders to be fruitful and multiply, but menstruation is a repeated ordeal.  Maybe the different length of the mother’s sequestration reflects this.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in 19th-century Germany, wrote that when a boy is circumcised at eight days, the father is impressed with his mission of being a role-model to his new son.  Since a girl is not circumcised, her longer seclusion with her mother impresses the mother with her mission of being a role-model to her new daughter.  Gender roles in the 19th century were strictly defined, just as they were when the Torah was written, and Hirsch viewed motherhood as a woman’s assigned calling.  Each mother must train her daughter to be a good mother.  Each father must train his son to walk with God while walking in the world.

Designated gender roles still exist in some cultures today, but much of the world has adopted a more fluid approach.  Modern Jews recognize this when we hold a naming ceremony for a female baby on her eighth day, or a bat mitzvah for a pubescent girl who is able, these days, to take on the same adult religious responsibilities as a boy.

But we no longer have a ritual for bringing the primary care-givers of newborn children back into the community.  Some countries now require employers to offer parental leave when a child is born or adopted—an excellent step.  I think it’s time to establish new social and religious customs as well.  (Whether a primary care-giver should get a total of 40 or 60 days away from normal religious and social responsibilities will depend on factors other than the sex of the infant!)

When parents do rejoin their community, the new ritual will certainly not include an animal sacrifice.  Parents today need a different symbolic way to dedicate themselves to serving the spiritual, as well as the animal, needs of their new children.

Any ideas?


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