The Torah describes the procedure for a metzora (a person afflicted with tzara'at) upon conclusion of his isolation. This process extends for a week and involves korbanot and immersions in the mikveh. Then, a kohen must pronounce the metzora pure. A metzora of limited financial means may substitute lesser offerings for the more expensive animals. Before a kohen diagnoses that a house has tzara'at, household possessions are removed to prevent them from also being declared ritually impure. The tzara'at is removed by smashing and rebuilding that section of the house. If it reappears, the entire building must be razed. The Torah details those bodily secretions that render a person spiritually impure, thereby preventing his contact with holy items, and the Torah defines how one regains a state of ritual purity.
Thermometer of the Soul
“This is the law of the Metzora…” (14:2)
My son made up a joke which had me in stitches. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to put it across in words, but let’s have a go.
You need two props for this: an empty cigarette box and one match. You put the two on the table and you say, “Imagine you’re locked in a darkened cellar full of mice and all you have is an empty cigarette box and a match. How do you get rid of the mice?” After your audience has scratched its collective head for a suitably frustrating amount of time, you pick up the match and stick it between one of the glued folds of paper in the cigarette box lid so that it’s protruding a little like an aerial. Then you pick up the box and bring it close to your mouth and make a ‘squelch’ sound of a walkie-talkie. “Chhhhhh! All mice please leave! All mice please leave!” (It sounds better in the original Hebrew: “Kol Ha’achbarim l’tzet! Kol Ha-achbarim l’tzet!”)
I probably haven’t succeeded in splitting your sides with this little anecdote, but I was so beside myself with laughter that I came close to transgressing the prohibition not to ‘fill our mouths with laughter’ until the coming of Mashiach (the Messiah). It got me thinking about words and how powerful they are. The right words in the right order at the right time can bring you to heaving with uncontrollable laughter. The wrong words can permanently scar a life.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn of the purification process for the Metzora. The world Metzora is usually mistranslated as “leprosy.” Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch gives many reasons why Metzora cannot mean the disease that we call “leprosy.” Rather, Metzora was a malady of the soul which manifested itself as lesions on the skin. Metzora can be understood as an acronym for motzi shem rah — literally, “bringing out a bad name.” Metzora afflicted someone who spreads damaging gossip. The power of words can be physical. Anyone who has cracked up at a joke knows that. Even though our bodies still react to our physical, mental and emotional health, our bodies are no longer sensitive to our spiritual health. We have lost Metzora — the thermometer of the soul.