Not your Papillon

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865) was a Hungarian physician of German extraction, (and some say of Jewish heritage). In the mid 1800’ he discovered that the incredibly high mortality rate among the birthing mothers (10-35%) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time, and despite his documented successes, his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Only after his tragic death, it’s become obvious that there was something to his discovery.
I thought about him this morning, writing my blog about tzara’at; about how quick we are to judge things we don’t already know.What is tzara’at? The quick answer is leprosy! Didn’t we see them in the Papillon? Yes, that would be correct in Modern Hebrew, but not for this Torah portion. Aligning Torah tzara’at with leprosy is a result of sad translations mishaps, and we’d be better off if we simply said, ‘we don’t know’. The Biblical tzara’at is, well, the Biblical tzara’at. And while for people of old it was a real disease, for us, it begins with a humble exercise approaching something we don’t know, and have a hard time even fathoming, sort of like the doctors around Semmelweiss. And by the way, to confuse matters further, the Biblical tzaraat was not healed by doctors, but by the priest!
So if it’s not leprosy, what is it? I typed צרעת quickly in Hebrew, my letters got mixed up and became צערת, related to Hebrew for sadness צער. This coincidental find is probably as close to its meaning as anything. Torah tzara’at is a set of symptoms that appear on one’s skin, clothing and even house walls, that have to do with a growing distance one acquires from the spirituality that the Torah teaches us as a way of life. Therefore, the treatment is also spiritual, and not physical. We learn about it best from people throughout the Tanach who contracted tzaraat, and discovered that it is a by-product of behaviors that involve tzarut-ayin – צרות-עין – narrow eye, or narrow mindedness and related by acronym צר-ע, but the most common situation is speaking lashon hara. The famous among those is Miriam being stricken with tzaraat (Number 12) after speaking about the “Kushite woman”. The assumption is that she said something bad. The sages thus taught that tzaraat has to do with motzi-shem-ra, speaking badly about another person.
So what is it doing here? Why not speak about it later, with Miriam, for example?
If we step back and look at the Book of Leviticus from the beginning, we see that we’re slowly climbing a ladder: we started with an inanimate objects (the mishkan on one hand, and on the other, cases of theft and possessions), learned our to deal with animals (korbanot, sacrifices and kashrut), then people, and what makes people unique. We looked at individuals: the woman and her baby, and now, we’re moving to the next stage: a group of people, society. Society is not just a bunch people doing whatever they feel like. It is a new structure, a “being”, a new compound. And the first and foremost tool to create, maintain and achieve longevity in this construction is speech.
Interestingly, even with the tzaraat, there is a ladder: it can affect one’s skin, then clothing, then houses, then be a result of inappropriate usage of sexual abilities and relationship.
Wait, who ever heard of a disease that affects houses??! I find it so intriguing, and no, it’s not mildew, because whatever this was, if this “thing” affected skin and clothing, why not the tents where the Children of Israel lived in the desert? True, the desert is dry, but then, why could it affect clothing?
Further, the tzaraat of the houses appears only in the Land of Israel. It opens with: “When you are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession” – we expect an uplifting follow up to such a celebratory opening! But the verse continues: “and I (G-d) put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession” (Leviticus 14:34). Why does it say “I put”, straight, like a promise? Why not only if we’re behaving “badly”??
The midrash says that tzaraat in the houses in Israel was a good thing: it forced people to clear the house of their belongings and in some cases knock it down. When the house was knocked down, the inhabitant discovered treasurers in its walls, rewarding them and reminding us how a bad thing can turn into a good thing. Another midrash teaches how people had to be much more generous with each other, knowing their belongings might be out for all to see. I prefer the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz 1550 –March 3, 1619) who noticed the use of “I give you for a possession” in the first part of the verse, as opposed to “your possession” in the latter. Accordingly, as long as a person remembers that his house and belongings are a gift from the Almighty, s/he will also be giving and generous to others; once we think our “stuff” is “our possession”, we will get a reminder in the form of an affliction on our houses, that, well, it’s not.
Nowadays, we no longer have the same spiritual sensitivity that previous generations had. To the best of our knowledge, we are not afflicted when we say something about another, and we have the illusion that we’re lucky. At the same time, it seems that we lost the ability to clearly distinguish what we’re doing wrong. A lot of it is left to ‘opinion’. Who’s the say? Well, oblivion is nice but it takes away our ability to repair.
And still, we cant get away with it so easily. Speech continues to be considered a critical tool. G-d created the whole world with words, and we, who were created in His image, are left to do our part with the same tool. Shabbat Shalom.

ובא אשר- לו הבית והגיד לכוהן, לאמור כנגע נראה לי בבית" - ויקרא י"ד,ל"ה

ובא אשר- לו הבית והגיד לכוהן, לאמור כנגע נראה לי בבית” – ויקרא י”ד,ל”ה Drawing by Ahuva Klein

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2 Responses to Not your Papillon

  1. neskama says:

    Thanks again Michal…I also read where Rabbi Twerski (as I am certain many others) relates, while climbing up that ladder, that last week we read about clean and unclean animals for consumption and now we read about the human….nice ladder as well. shabbat shalom

    You know you’re a redneck if your home has wheels and your car doesn’t….Jeff FoxworthyIf there is a Divine Plan i am simply playing my part, not even knowing what it is…..Anon
    neska נסקה

    Date: Wed, 2 Apr 2014 19:16:16 +0000
    To: neskama@hotmail.com

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