Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: "Unpleasant" Laws lead to Ultimate Oneness

By HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El

Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Rabbi Shmuel Bar Yitchak once noted that certain laws of the Torah, even though they seem to be disgusting and therefore inappropriate to discuss in public, are "sweet to God." Some examples of this area of law: halachot governing impure emissions from the body, the menstrual impurity of a woman, etc. According to the prophet Malachi, "the offerings of Judea and Jerusalem will be sweet to Hashem as in former days..." is a reference to the Torah portions of the male and female who each have impure bodily emissions; they could have been written in one unit, but they were not. They were to be discussed, "savored" separately by God.

The laws of ritual purity and impurity, though they seem unpleasant, are a direct function of the greatness of the people of Israel. Only Israel, a nation mandated to continually rise to higher spiritual levels, is required to distance itself from impurity to such a great extent. Today, these Torah portions don’t speak to us so much. We cannot truly imagine what it must have been like to live in such a reality, with complex laws of purity and impurity governing our lives, what it must have involved to sacrifice the Pesach offering in purity. We lack a sense of Kedusha, or holiness. We do not have the Beit Hamikdash, the Torah-mandated holiness of the Teruma offering, etc. Thus, no laws of impurity are practically applicable. In the meantime, when we discuss matters of ritual purity and impurity, we "darshen" try to get a peek into the internal mechanisms of purity and impurity.

Tza'raat is the leprosy-like illness mentioned in our portion. Our sages explain that "Metzora," the Hebrew term for the person stricken with this illness, is an acronym for "Motzi Shem Ra" - someone who is a purveyor of slander against others. When we deal with Tz’araat, we discuss the mitzvah of guarding one’s tongue and the like. In other words, as opposed to studying the illness itself, we examine the factors that bring it about. All of the various types of impurity mentioned in this week’s Torah portion are impurities that emanate from, and become evident on, the surface of the human body. Only after a sore manifests itself in the case of Metzora - or blood in the case of a Zav or Zava, does the impurity appear - on the skin, clothing, vessels... Once the respective impurities appear the process of healing can begin. When the impurity manifests itself, it "escapes," and the person is freed from the turmoil that was brewing inside of him...

Speech also helps bring out that which was bound up inside the person. If talk is positive and productive, it brings in its wake all sorts of positive results. But, if God forbid, one speaks slanderously of another, one thereby emits all sorts of unhealthy forces that spread and impact on him as a person: on his skin, hair, clothing and home.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook of blessed Memory discusses three different levels on which man expresses his connection to money and material possessions: in reference to Tz’araat sores, in reference to our father Ya’akov and regarding the great sage, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

In reference to Tz’araat sores, our Torah portion says: "When you arrive in the Land of Cana’an that I will give you as an inheritance, and I will provide the blemish of Tz’araat in the homes of the Land of your inheritance." To this, the Tosefta responds: "There never was and never will be a home smitten with Tz’ara’at. If so why was it written? To teach you that it is a value to elucidate the law and thereby receive merit." All of the laws and sundry details were given so that we learn these mitzvot and thereby receive merit.

Rabbi Meir notes that in reference to the illness of Tzaraat, the Torah commands the Cohen, the Priest, to remove even minor clay vessels from the smitten home, lest they become defiled. He adds that the people generally smitten by the illness are those of a low moral stature, people who have been guilty of speaking slanderously and improperly. Therefore, concludes R. Meir, the Torah is concerned with even the most minor vessels of wicked people!

A similar theme is evident in the life of our forefather, Ya'akov. "And Ya’akov remained alone." Said R. Elazar: he remained back in order to collect small clay pottery. After Ya’akov had guided his family across the river, and even though only minor possessions were left back at the camp, he went back to get them. He would not even forfeit the smallest clay vessels...

This midrash is quite perplexing. Ya’akov Avinu, we are taught, remained alone because he went back to retrieve tiny clay jars? He seems to be a real miser! This aloneness, however, that characterized Ya’akov gives our forefather a quality otherwise reserved for God - Who is also "alone".

When Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai fell ill, his students came to visit him. At the moment of his death, he said: Take the vessels out of this room due to the impurity [of my body once I am dead.] Prepare the throne for King Hezekiah the King of Judea..." Even if one can explain the eventual arrival of Hezekiah as preoccupying R. Yochanan before he dies, why should this great sage be worried about clay pottery and be worried that they be taken out of the building lest they be disposed of due to impurity?

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook offers an explanation as to the linkage between the above elements. We live in a world of separation, between light and darkness, Israel and the other nations, between the Shabbat day and the other days of the week. When the world was initially created, however, light and darkness were unified, and only thereafter are we told that God separated between light and darkness. In the future, the prophet Yeshaya tells us, the distinction between the light of the sun and the moon will disappear. In other words, at the foundation of all existence - all levels of the world are united. Only when they emanate into physical reality do they become divided; we thus experience darkness vs. light as well as various gradations of darkness vs. light. But in the future, these phenomenon will all unite. So, too, the distinction between Israel and the nations will become blurred, as the prophet Zephaniah teaches us: "Then, [says God], I will provide all of the nations with one mouth, to call in the name of God and to worship Him jointly".

In the future, all days of the week will be melded into one grand day that is completely Shabbat. The mundane will unite with the holy, forging one united reality of holiness. The distinction between the holy and profane is not an intrinsic, absolute division; it came to the world as a result of the sin of the Garden of Eden, which resulted in a split between the physical and spiritual worlds. But when the world is ultimately rectified and perfected, when all creatures call out in the name of God, then these divisions will dissolve. In the meantime, the light must impact on the darkness, the holy on the mundane, Israel on the gentile nations, etc.

This unity is characteristic of our forefather Ya'akov. Ya'akov, like God, remained "alone." In the end of days, as well, God will be "alone," in that no other gods will be worshipped aside from Him. The clay jugs were important to Ya'akov not because he was miserly, God forbid, spending his time on trite matters, but because he saw the jugs as part of an entirety of existence, a reality that encompasses all things big and small. Clay jugs also have their purpose!

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai - before his encounter with the World to Come, mentioned the throne of King Hezekiah and called for the removal of vessels so that they would not be contaminated with the ritual impurity his dead body would create. At that moment, like Ya'akov our father, R. Yochanan understood the unity of all existence and the function of the most seemingly insignificant of objects:

Our sages teach that Hezekiah could have been the Mashiach, the Messiah; why then was he not allowed to be? Because he did not recite the Hallel on the great miracle that benefited him, when God killed in one night the entirety of the Ashur army. It was not Hezekiah, but the land, that then opened its mouth, so to speak, and sang. Rav Kook explains that although in Hezekiah’s day, Jews found themselves on a high level relative to both Torah study and spirituality in general, Hezekiah failed to translate that strength into an earthly holiness. It was not he who sang, but the earth itself that had to sing! Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai thus called for the preparation of a place for Hezekiah the King of Judea, as well as calling for the removal of vessels lest they become impure. These two approaches, though they represent opposite relationships and sensitivities to the fusion of physical and spiritual realities, are part of the same process. And R. Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that the process of redemption must engage and apply all matters, however contradictory...

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