Shabbat Metsora 12 April, 2019

When I was in Rabbinic School, students were required to give a “senior sermon.” Your sermon was based on an assigned Torah portion. Assignments were given out at the beginning of term, and the burning question each September was always, “Who got stuck with Tazria-Metsora this year?

The content of Parashat Tazria-Metsora is challenging. The portion discuses laws of ritual impurity and describes how the priests were to diagnose and treat leprosy, skin disease and other eruptive infections of the body. Not the easiest or most inspiring stuff on which to base a sermon.

Tazria-Metsora is actually a combination of two  parasheot. (portions). I suppose someone figured that it was best to get through this Biblical material as quickly as possible. But given the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, a leap year requires that the two portions be separated and assigned to two successive Sabbaths. 2019 is such a year. So it was ritual impurity last Shabbat and leprosy this one.

Only Parashat Metsora isn’t really about leprosy at all. The Torah isn’t actually describing what the medical profession calls Hansen’s disease. Most probably the confusion came from the translation of the original Hebrew word into Greek and then into English. The Torah and certainly the Rabbis afterwards understood these chapters as prescriptions to deal with the moral contamination of a society. The Talmud and later Jewish preachers saw in the rites of ritual purification a metaphor for spiritual regeneration.

It doesn’t take much to see that the Western world is in a period of crisis. Hatred, fragmentation, mean-spiritedness, vast income inequality. Troubling patterns of individual and societal behavior have emerged. Democratic values are under attack. Compassion, tolerance, honesty are in short supply. The threat to our environment is real. We don’t treat one another very well. Columnist David Brooks writes that years of a hyper-individualistic ego-centered thinking have dissolved the shared moral culture that used to restrain our worst impulses. But “whole societies and cultures can swap bad values for better ones.”

The sages of Israel have long known that it was possible for moral corruption to infect and infest a society, and it was just as possible to diagnose and address that contamination. The prophets of Israel called their people back to the values that elevate and nurture human association and make civilized living possible. As both Micah and Isaiah declared: It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Whiman