It’s not leprosy!

It’s not leprosy!

When the world has got hold of a lie, it is astonishing how hard it is to kill it. You beat it over the head, till it seems to have given up the ghost, and behold! the next day it is as healthy as ever.  -Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

The Torah describes a condition called Tzaraat, which has continuously and erroneously been translated as leprosy. The only connection between these two terms is that they refer to some skin condition, but except for that they are dissimilar and incomparable.

One of the most important Roman historians, Tacitus, is guilty of a great crime against the Jewish people. Besides his anti-Semitic rhetoric, perhaps the most long-lasting damage has been his interpretation of the Hebrew word Tzaraat as leprosy. Tacitus, almost 2,000 years ago, wrote the following fanciful account in his history of the Jews:

“Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods.”

“The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random.”

Tacitus continues to spout further venomous nonsense, which centuries later was picked up by modern historians.  However, perhaps Tacitus’ greatest offense is that his characterization of Tzaraat as leprosy has even made it into modern translations of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus Chapter 13 attacks “Tacitus’ fairy tale” and provides a detailed and lengthy explanation of exactly how Tzaraat has nothing to do with the disease known as leprosy. Tzaraat is not contagious nor were those afflicted quarantined.  Tzaraat is a physical manifestation upon the skin of a spiritual malady. The result of a person contracting Tzaraat is that he is considered ritually impure, not sick.

In the words of Rabbi Hirsch, Tzaraat is the result of “such sins as arrogance, falsehood, avarice and slander which escape the authority of human tribunals.” As a result, God Himself intervenes and dispenses justice by affecting the sinners’ body, possessions and home.

May we distance ourselves from negative personality traits and acts and thereby be spared from God’s modern substitutes for Tzaraat, which contrary to popular translations have nothing to do with leprosy!

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Ed and Dalia Stelzer for their hospitality and more.

Distant Proximity

Distant Proximity 

 He who created the speech of the lips, peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near, said God; and I will heal him. – Isaiah 57:19

BalloonsA fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of approaching God, of getting closer to God, of connecting to God. We often define these concepts in spatial terms.

In ancient days we approached the Temple in Jerusalem. The closer we were to that epicenter of religious life, the closer we were to God. In our own day, synagogue, ritual, the Torah and its many commandments have supplanted the Temple service, but nonetheless, we tend to think in spatial expressions and may think of ourselves or others as “closer” or “further” from God and divine service.

A person afflicted with the biblical condition of Tzaraat (an unusual skin discoloration) was exiled from the Israelite camp. The Sfat Emet in 5648 (1898) explains the counterintuitive phenomena of having to go “farther” to come “closer.” Many people see God and feel closer to God when they approach the “center” of religious worship, when they are involved in the details of the commandments, when they pray in the synagogue, when they study the Torah. However, for some, it doesn’t work. They are turned off by the rituals. They are bored by the traditions and inherited wisdom. They go away. They go into exile. They get as far away, physically and existentially from their heritage. And that’s when they discover it. At the farthest distance from Jewish communal life, in the solitude of strange and unusual cultural existence, they suddenly encounter God. Then they get an inkling as to the value of what their ancestors had. Then they feel the closeness of God, the connection to the infinite and divine that magically transcends the finite and the mortal.

May we all receive such moments of inspiration and connect to God, no matter how “far” or “close” we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Moses, for his integral role in taking us out of Egypt (and for so much more). He gets very little credit or mention in the Pesach Haggadah (on purpose…).

Some people never learn…

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/metzora-some-people-never-learn/ 

Netziv Leviticus: Metzora

Some people never learn…

“Obstinacy is will asserting itself without being able to justify itself. It is persistence without a reasonable motive. It is the tenacity of self-love substituted for that of reason and conscience.” -Henri Frederic Amiel

It is said that experience is the best teacher, but sometimes even that is not enough. There are times when actions and their consequences are so clear that it is only by a great force of will or delusion that the correct lessons are ignored.

The Torah dedicates a lot of ink to the malady known as tzaraat. There are three categories of tzaraat: afflictions upon the structure of ones house, afflictions upon ones clothing and affliction upon ones body. Tzaraat is generally attributed to gossip. Rabbinic commentators explain that if one gossips, God sends an initial warning by affecting ones house. The damage, minor as it may be, is meant to be an opportunity to deliberate as to the spiritual ills that lead to the physical harm.

If one gets the message, they clean up their act, fix their house and life goes on. However, the Netziv on Leviticus 14:44 explains, if one doesn’t get the message, if one doesn’t excise the spiritual illness from themselves, the tzaraat will return and with more force.

The second level that is affected, is ones clothing, ones personal possessions – much closer. The final level that is affected is ones body.

May we use the opportunities that damage and afflictions give us to contemplate our lives and areas for repair and improvement, especially regarding the great evil of gossip.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who are both careful with what they put in their mouths over Pesach as well as with what comes out of their mouths the whole year.

 

Holy Thumbs

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tazria-holy-thumbs/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Tazria-Metzora

Holy Thumbs

According to a decades-old study, 92% of infants suck their thumb. Besides all of the normal physiological reasons, I think I’ve stumbled upon another reason for a baby’s fascination and attachment to that particular finger.

In the Sanctuary (and later in the Temple) there is a ritual performed to purify a recovered “leper”, metzora in Hebrew, though leper is a poor but common translation of what is considered a spiritual ailment that displays itself physically upon the skin. Part of the ritual was to take the blood of a sacrificed sheep and place it on the right earlobe, right thumb and right big toe of the healed “leper”.

Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 14:14 wonders what’s so special about the thumb. He then goes on to explain that the thumb is none other than the nexus of the physical and the spiritual. The thumb (think opposable) is what allows man to convert his spiritual desires into concrete action. If it weren’t for our (opposable) thumbs, we would be hard pressed to make and wield tools, to write, to craft or to do most things that humans have developed over millennia.

A child sucking his thumb may be doing much more than seeking comfort and pleasure. He may very well be retaining his connection to the spiritual world, seeking the power of the nexus of body and soul, the most physical part of the body that differentiates man from other primates, the most important digit of the hand.

I will never look at a child sucking their thumb the same way again.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nieces and nephews of thumb-sucking age. May you always retain your connection to the spiritual.

Lord of the Doppelganger Flies

Kli Yakar Leviticus: Metzorah

Lord of the Doppelganger Flies

“If we were faultless we should not be so much annoyed by the defects of those with whom we associate.” -Francois FeNelon

Ever hear a piece of really juicy gossip? A man cheated on his wife? A business-man caught for financial wrongdoing? Or some other nonsensical tidbit of embarrassing or deprecatory trivia? Well, according to the Kli Yakar, there is a high likelihood that the purveyors of such gossip are themselves guilty of the very same crimes they are so eager to point out.

According to the Kli Yakar the gossiper is like a fly. A fly will scour the entire body of a person. The fly will inspect every inch of flesh and ignore the strong, whole, healthy skin. The fly will zoom in on any bit of exposed, unhealthy, putrid flesh. The fly will feast on the diseased part of the person.

The Kli Yakar adds an additional point. Such flies, such gossipers, are not only attracted to the bad in every person. They are attracted to those faults, those problems that mirror their own. They assume that others have the same faults and issues as they do and will gleefully point out that very fault in others.

So the next time that gossiper reveals the problems of others, take a step back, and consider whether it is a confession on their part instead.

May we keep our ears and mouths closed to gossip. We might catch a fly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of my dear, great-uncle David Spitz of Forest Hills, NY, who passed away this week. A great man who encompassed multiple traits, including generosity, kindness and a quick sense of humor. He survived the Holocaust and went on to thrive, building a family and seeing not only grandchildren, but many, many great-grandchildren as well. We will miss Uncle Dave.