On the Weekly Torah Portion of Metzora

Ancient mosaic from lower Galilee

Ancient mosaic from Lower Galilee

On the face of it, the weekly Torah portion of metzora (Leviticus Ch. 14 & 15) deals with the role of the priests in purifying physical impurities of all kinds, especially skin impurities and diseases (metzora means “lepper”). But the real message of this portion is best told with the help of a story from the midrash (the allegorical commentaries on the Torah).

The midrash* tells that a peddler was going around the lower Galilee region of ancient Israel, calling out for people to buy his elixir of life. Wherever he went, he attracted attention. Rabbi Yanai, one of the most prominent figures of the time (3rd century C.E), was studying Torah in his luxurious living room when he was distracted by the commotion caused by the man.

After hearing what the excitement was about , he invited the peddler into his house and asked to buy his merchandise. “You don’t need it”, said the peddler, “It’s not for the likes of you.” Rabbi Yanai insisted, so the peddler showed him a verse from the Psalms:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים, אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
Who is the man who is eager for life,
Who desires years of good fortune?
Guard your tongue from evil,
Your lips from deceitful speech. (Psalm 34, 13-14)

Rabbi Yanai commented: “I have been studying this verse all my life, and until this peddler came, I did not realize how literally it should be taken.”

It seems obvious to me, that the kind of life that the Psalm and midrash are referring to is not biological life. We all know that there are some truthful people who never speak ill of others whose life is short, and some dishonest people whose life is long and even comfortable. Rather, it is the quality of life that they are referring to. Life that is infested with evil speech and deceit is not a life worth living.

What does this story have to do with the Torah portion, which deals exclusively with how to diagnose, isolate, and treat leprosy and other external impurities? Because leprosy has been connected by the sages to speaking ill of others. This connection is established in the book of Numbers, the next book in the Torah. We are told that Miryam, Moses’ sister, was speaking ill of her brother, and that she was punished by incurring leprosy on the spot (Leviticus 12). The sages, using a play on words, equated the Hebrew word metzora (מצרע) with motzi shem ra (מוציא שם רע).

And perhaps just as the “life” that is referred to in the story above is not biological life, but the internal dimension of life, so also the leprosy that is spoken off here is not physical leprosy, but an allegorical one. The result of speaking ill of others, then, is that your life is seriously ill—your soul becomes full of blemish.

It is interesting that one way in which a was treated was banishment. He or she could not come into the town, city, or camp with the rest of the people. This could also be understood allegorically, because a person who is in the habit of speaking ill of others isolates him- or herself from the sense of community, from being together with others. Outwardly, physically, he or she may be with others; but internally, he or she has banished themselves.

Speaking ill of others is probably the hardest “sin” to avoid. I have met very few people in my life who are genuinely saintly in this manner, and the sweetness and love the radiates form them is palpable (and very implicating!). That saintliness can feel to others that it’s too much, and they need to challenge it, to see if it’s really true.

It reminds me of a story that I’ve told once before on this blog. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru who founded Transcendental Meditation, told about an Indian saint who was known for his insistence on only seeing the positive in every situation. A group of young men took him upon themselves to expose him to utterly negative situation, in which he would not have anything good to say.

Inviting him to accompany them to a function, they made sure to pass through an alley where a rotten carcass of a cat run over by a car was lying in the middle of the road. When one of the men pointed to the carcass with disgust, the saint smiled and said: “Look at the beautiful, pearly white teeth of the cat”.

That men found the elixir of life. He was definitely not a metzorah, not a lepper.

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* Midrash Rabah Vayikra, 16:2

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)