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Parashat Metzora - Quick Summary

Weekly Torah Reading

Parashat Metzora ("leper")

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Brit Chadashah


Leviticus 14:1-15:33

2 Kings 7:3-20

Matthew 8:1-17

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Torah Reading Snapshot:

Parashah Metzora continues from last week's description of certain skin afflictions, collectively called tzara'at, that cause uncleanness in the afflicted person. Here Moses gives further instructions about how one who has recovered from such a skin affliction (called ha-Metzora) is ceremonially purified by a priest with a blood ritual involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, scarlet thread and a hyssop branch.

The parashah begins:

Leviticus 14:1-2 (BHS)

 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "This shall be the law of the leprous person
for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest..." (Leviticus 14:1-2)

More about Lashon Hara

As we learned in last week's parashah (Tazria), lashon hara (לָשׁוֹן הָרָה) means "the evil tongue," which we saw means saying something bad about another person even if it happens to be true. In other words, lashon hara is gossip, spreading evil (even if true) reports, or expressing a critical or negative spirit about others. Such behavior is explicitly forbidden in Levitcus 19:16.

An old midrash tells about a Jewish peddler who went city to city selling an elixir that promised the user a long and happy life. A certain Rabbi Yanai heard the peddler and asked to buy some of this wonderful medicine. The man replied that such a rabbi would have no need for such, but at Rabbi Yanai's insistence, the peddler gave him the formula:

mi-ha'ish he-chafetz chayim, oheiv yamim lir'ot tov?
netzor l'shonekha meira, u'sefatekha midabeir mirmah.

Who is the man who desires life and loves to see days of good?
Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech!

King Solomon agrees, as many of his mishlei (proverbs) attest:

shomeir pin u'lishono - shomeir mitzarot nafisho.

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue guards his soul from troubles.

The LORD demands truthful speech from us, since gossip and idle talk invariably lead people into ill feelings and quarrels. Notice something important, however. Truthful speech doesn't always mean "accurately" reporting everything you see others.  For instance, you might see a character defect or fault in someone, but love constrains you to overlook the fault and regard them in the best possible light.  We are all frail and we all stumble in this life, and a gracious attitude toward the (real or imagined) shortcomings of others is crucial for a life of harmony and peace.... This is the "do unto others..." principle.

Yeshua told us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34), and further warned us about the unthinking use of our words:

Matthew 12:36-37 (HNT)

va'ani omeir lakhem: ki 'al kol-si'ach tapeil asher ye'vate'u v'nei ha'adam
yitenu cheshbon b'yom hamishpat. ki bidvareyka titzadeik u'vidvareykha te'sham.

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall account for in the day of judgment. For by your words you shalt be justified, and by you words you shalt be condemned.

In traditional Jewish thinking, lashon hara is one of the worst of sins, and God is said to punish those who speak such with middah-keneged-middah -- "measure for measure" justice. Since spreading evil reports divided others and caused isolation and loneliness, the metzora shall be afflicted (with tzuris, troubles) and separated from the fellowship of Israel.  Indeed, some of the sages point out that the word metzora (one afflicted with tzara'at) is related to the phrase, motzi ra (one who speaks evil), and thereby conclude that evil speech is the principal cause of the disease itself. Obviously we should flee from the sin of lashon hara!  May the LORD help each of us to always "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15, 25).

Note that the foregoing does not mean that we are excused from making righteous judgments (John 7:24). Sometimes it is the mark of a coward to refrain from speaking the truth. As Einstein once said, "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."

Cleansing from Tzara'at

If one suffering from tzara'at had undergone teshuvah (repentance) and had apparently been healed, he would first call for the priest to be reexamined. If the priest saw no sign of tumah (uncleanness), a second examination was scheduled seven days later, and if the metzora was free from the disease, the process of tahara (purification) would begin.

The procedure was someone elaborate: After the second examination, the priest required that the metzora bring the following items for his cleansing:

  1. An earthenware bowl filled with spring water (mayim chayim)
  2. Two birds of the same type (whether turtledoves or pigeons)
  3. A stick of cedar wood
  4. A hyssop branch
  5. A scarlet thread

The priest then commanded that one of the birds should be slaughtered over the earthen vessel filled with fresh spring water, with its blood mixing with the water. The living bird, the piece of cedar, and the hyssop branch were then tied together using the scarlet thread, and the entire bundle was dipped into the earthen vessel. The blood and water mixture was then sprinkled seven times on the healed metzora, and the other bird was then set free.

Next, the afflicted person washed his clothes, shaved off all his hair (including his eyebrows), and bathed in a mikveh (ritual pool for cleansing).  After that he may return to the general camp - but he may not return to his home for another seven days. On the eighth day he would bathe again and offer several offerings (a chatat, an asham, an olah, and a minchah), but the blood from the asham (guilt) offering was mixed with oil and applied to his earlobe, thumb and foot, similar to the blood applied to the priests during their ordination. Oil from a meal offering was sprinkled seven times in the direction of the Sanctuary. Only after all this was he pronounced tahor (clean) by the priest. His life of uncleanness would be over, and he would be like a man who was brought back from the dead to renewed life.

Why this strange ritual? Well, it is chok - beyond the range of human reason, though some of the sages speculate that the cedar wood represents pride (it is one of the grandest of trees) whereas the hyssop represents humility (it is one of the lowest lying of branches). The blood ritual clearly indicates the atonement of the sinner, not unlike that performed for the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests in the mishkan, which  indicates the full restoration of the metzora back to the community. The scarlet thread represents Yeshua - His blood that holds everything together (the blood and the water) that makes the atonement possible.

We can see how the purification ritual corresponded with other rituals revealed in the Torah. The sprinkling of the hyssop by the priest recalled the blood of Passover; the offering made of the two birds - one which was sacrificed and the other set free - recalled the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur ritual. The washing of garments, the shaving of all hair, and the immersion in a mikveh recalled the birth of the Jewish people at the Sea of Reeds. The blood of the guilt offering applied to the earlobe, thumb and foot, recalled the dedication of Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel (Lev. 14:14). In other words, the individual purification process mirrored the purification of the community of Israel, and healing ultimately meant being reidentified as a redeemed child of God.  In a very literal sense, then, we see how the metzora was "reborn" by water and by the blood (John 3:5; 19:34; Heb. 9:19).

In addition to the ritual for cleansing the metzora, both clothing and houses could be infected (this was thought to be a warning to the owners of God's impending judgment should they disregard their need for teshuvah).  Both are made unclean by the appearance of colored patches, and in both cases only the priest could determine whether an affected garment or house can be purified or must be destroyed.

On a happier note, sometimes tzara'at in a house actually portended God's blessing! When the Canaanites heard that the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, they sometimes hid their gold, silver, and precious stones in the walls of a house. If a Jew was deserving, God caused tzara'at to appear at the very place that the treasure was stored, so when the stones were being removed to be examined by the priest, the family found the treasure that was left behind!

A midrash states that when the children of Israel first heard the laws of tzara'at, they despaired and became very afraid. Moses reassured them by telling them that tzara'at was a sign from God that they were indeed a holy nation, since it is His way of encouraging them to do teshuvah in order to be in fellowship with Him. Likewise God sometimes disciplines us for our sins (Heb. 12:7-8) for the purpose of granting us the gift of teshuvah (2 Cor. 7:10). We must therefore strive to make our conversation and the inmost intent of our hearts "captive to the obedience of the Mashiach," blessed be He (Matt. 5:37; Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 1 Tim. 4:2; etc.). May the LORD God of Israel help us all.

One final note of hope: In the Brit Chadashah, we read how Yeshua healed various "lepers" and even touched them (Matt. 8:2-3, Mark 1:40-41). But how could He do this without Himself becoming tamei (unclean)? Ah, this is a good sheilah (question), but it is directly answered when we apprehend that Yeshua is none other than YHVH who came in the flesh. For remember, it was the prerogative of the LORD God of Israel to "touch" those afflicted with tzara'at and heal them based on their teshuvah, and in like measure, Yeshua entered the "leper colony" of humanity to heal those who cried out to Him.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and His love reaches down to those who are afflicted and oppressed on account of their uncleanness. If you call upon Him, He will likewise touch you and restore you to fellowship with God. Blessed be His Name forever.

The portion concludes with laws regarding "bodily discharges" (zuvim) which required purification through immersion in a mikvah and the offering of sacrifices for atonement. "Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst" (Lev. 15:31).

Haftarah Reading Snapshot:

The Haftarah reading for Metzora relates the story of how Gehazi, Elisha's servant who was afflicted with tzara'at for his greed (see 2 Kings 5:20-27), discovered that the LORD delivered Israel from the Syrians who had besieged them. The skeptical captain of Israel, who doubted Elisha's words about Israel's deliverance was killed by the mob rushing out to plunder the camp of the Syrians.

Brit Chadashah Reading Snapshot:

The Brit Chadashah reading for Metzora includes reference several miracles that the Mashiach Yeshua performed during His first visitation, including the healing of a leper. Matthew connects the healing ministry of Yeshua as the fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "He took our illnesses and bore our diseases" (Isaiah 53:4).

Many of us are in various states of denial regarding our own sinful condition and need for deliverance, which can be illustrated by the case of the metzora and its progression in the life of the afflicted.

A doctor friend of mine recently reminded me that tzara'at was an infectious condition.  As long as the affliction was spreading across the body, the person was metzora and therefore tamei (unclean), but if the tzara'at (finally) covered the person from head to toe, he was to be considered "clean" (Lev. 13:12-13). In other words, in some cases the metzora needed to be entirely covered with their affliction before they were set free, and this further reminds me of our need to be fully identified with the death of Yeshua in order to experience the resurrection life!

It is only by understanding how radical the need for our deliverance that Yeshua's "healing touch" can be manifest...


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