Once upon a time, as all stories go, there was a poor thief who came across an exquisite coat, weaved with gold and silver threads. Desperate to get his next meal, he rushed to sell it in the market for 100 coins. Upon hearing this, his friends laughed at him: “that’s all you got for it??” at which the man replied, “You mean, there is a number greater than 100?”
I find this story in a book tossed on a stone-wall in my neighborhood, its fate hanging between treasure and garbage, and even that is perhaps symbolic.
How can we begin to know that which we don’t know?
I am almost haunted by this week’s reading, focused on the strange tzara’at, its symptoms and cure. It’s easy to avoid talking about it: it’s Shabbat Hagadol (the “Great Shabbat”, a name given for the Shabbat before Pesach), and Passover is coming. There is so much to say about cleaning, freedom (though right now they seem mutually exclusive!) and more…
What does tzara’at mean? What is its cause? Most of what we know about it is conjecture. Erroneously used for modern leprosy and thus translated as such, it’s easily dismissed as ancient and outdated. It’s peculiar how one gets it, and if it’s contagious, especially since the priest who comes in contact with the afflicted person, doesn’t get it. The struggle to make sense, speaks even louder to the lack of understanding. And just when think we built some theory around it (the most common one – tzara’at comes from “motzi shem ra”, instructing us not to gossip and speak badly about others), Leviticus 14-15 comes to tell us that clothing and houses can be afflicted with it. Do clothes and houses gossip too?
Before giving up, let’s try zooming out and taking a broader look at this difficult book.
We started Leviticus with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the mobile Temple, and went on to learn what sacrifices are brought there for what reason. Then, on that most festive day when the Tabernacle finally opened for business, a terrible tragedy: Nadav and Avihu, the future leaders as Aaron’s -the high priest’s – sons – were stricken to death, bringing a “strange fire” (10:1). Then we read the laws of keeping kosher, a woman giving birth, and tzara’at, our strange affliction. Just as we get completely lost in pretty gory details, chapter 16 opens with “and it came to pass after the death of Nadav and Avihu” (16:1), taking us back to the story line. I’d like to suggest that Nadav and Avihu here serve as, for lack of a better word, brackets in the flow of the story, and on this Shabbat, we’re inside of the brackets.
Why did Nadav and Avihu die? There are numerous commentaries whether they did something wrong, and if so, what was it (drinking, being disrespectful to their elders etc), or whether they just got too close to the “light” and, like paper approaching fire, were consumed by it. Either way, it’s almost as if the Torah uses this to say something like, ‘wait, while we’re on this subject, let’s look into all the other ways by which one can draw near or be pushed away from holiness. Please pay attention to what you eat, how you treat your wife, how you raise your children, how you speak, dress, and care for your home – for it’s all part of getting close or being pushed away. You think it’s the big stuff, the once in a life time something or other? Yes, sure, that too, but even more so, it’s the tiny, little choices, attentions and intentions, prioritizing one seemingly small thing over another, like a drawing made of million dots that end up being a picture, and each makes a difference in how the picture will end up looking’.
A very binary system is set in place here – there is only “off” and “on” – busy with “splitting hairs”, all in order to get to the bottom of it while being fully aware that there is no bottom and nowhere to get to.
Hebrew has a little “fun” with it too, introducing a set of words that change their meaning by rearranging its letters, by “prioritizing” one over the other.
Take for example, the word nega – plague or affliction. It comes from the same root as touch – lingo’a. Rearrange the letters, and you can make “oneg”, pleasure (like oneg Shabbat – Shabbat delight).
Another insight from the language comes with the word Tzara’at itself. Per Rav Hirsch its core meaning is to erupt, and is therefore related to zera, a seed (consider last week’s reading of “Tazri’a”-). By contrast, the Aramaic translation calls is “sagiru”, which is the Hebrew root for closed! So – “to erupt” and “to close” actually flow in some figure eight”: Tzara’at is intended through “closing” to open things up: the person is removed from the camp, but that time away is meant to help him reconsider his action and come back. The Tzara’at of the homes is considered by commentators as a blessing, for it is a sign that there are treasures hidden in the walls, which only through opening / destroying the walls, can be discovered, pretty much like the hidden treasures within us.
This reading is at the heart of Leviticus. Some say that the whole book follows the order of creation: first we deal with inanimate objects, then animals, then humans. If so, it’s no wonder the sages looked at speech as a connector (or disconnector), since our ability to express ourselves in words is a great part of how our humanity is defined (for example, being made in G-d’s image, who created the world through speech, like we can “create” and “destroy” worlds with words; check Onkelos on Genesis 2:7), and it’s no wonder we examine our actions, not just visa vie our own narrow existence but also against our outer environment, hence our clothing and homes matter.
Last but not least, there is much we don’t know, and some of it better left this way: what exactly is Tzara’at? We don’t really know, and that should be ok. We might not be able to know what number is greater than 100, but we should know there is one.