Friday, April 24, 2009

Parshat Tazria - פרשת תזריע

וראה הכהן את־הנגע בעור־הבשר ושער בנגע הפך לבן ומראה הנגע עמק מעור בשרו נגע צרעת הוא וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו - And the Kohen shall see the affliction on the skin of his flesh: If hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction's appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh - it is a Tzara'at affliction; the Kohen shall see it and contaminate him.

Today there is a feeling spreading among Am Yisrael that the Galut is at an end and that the Geulah truly is just around the corner; we have (at least part of) Eretz Yisrael back in our hands, Ivrit, the only language in the world to have made a successful revival, is the spoken language of the Jewish people, and Jewish culture is flourishing. But there are some effects of this 2,000 year long exile that we have to shake off, like the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world have very real trouble in understanding their prayer.

A friend of mine who is not as religious as I am made a comment to a Rabbi a few years ago, a comment that I perceived as somewhat radical. He suggested that we should "daven" in the way that Quakers pray - each person should speak to Hashem as he wants, without needing to resort to the set texts of the Siddur. In that way, argued my friend, we would all be able to find our tefillot that much more relevant. I can't remember the answer that the Rabbi gave, but I do tender an answer of my own now.

My answer to my friend's question is that we should take a look at this week's Parsha. In it we read of the condition called Tzara'at - an affliction that affected those who were spiritually ill. There were certain conditions that would be placed upon the sufferer of one with Tzara'at; he would have to go through a quarantine process, amongst other things. But all these prohibitions and procedures would not start until the sufferer was diagnosed by a Kohen. The Kohen would essentially fulfill the role of "spiritual doctor" and inform the "patient" of the required course of action.

There are many complicated halachot pertaining to Tzara'at, but surely one of the most interesting comes from the words "וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו," which roughly translates as "And the Kohen shall see it and contaminate him." These words are troubling - how can it be that the Kohen would make a man Tamei - spiritually impure? Obviously a straightforward reading of the text does not suffice, and thankfully Rashi explains this to mean, "יאמר לו 'טמא אתה' - he shall say to him, 'You are impure,' " meaning that the Kohen would declare the man to be impure rather than actually make him impure himself. The problem is that this reading of the text leads to an inner contradiction - why are the words "טמא אתו" used - they are causative and imply that the Kohen makes the sufferer Tamei?

The resolution to this problem is hinted to by Rashi. He states that the Kohen must declare the sufferer to be ill with Tzara'at. We can take this to mean that from the moment the Kohen pronounces a man a "מצורע" (the technical name for one who suffers with צרעת.) It is important to note that no matter how evident it is that someone is suffering from this condition, none of the procedures are followed until a Kohen declares the sufferer to be a Metzora. This is even the case when an expert declares a man as having Tzara'at - it is only halachicly regarded as Tzara'at once it has been pronounced as such by a Kohen, even if that Kohen is so unlearned as to practically be a boor.

There are many lessons one can learn from this, but the one I pick out is that the words of the Kohen have tremendous power here, for they effect the condition of Tzara'at. So important are the Kohen's words that we treat someone who is clearly suffering with Tzara'at as spiritually pure monents before the Kohen declares his diagnosis, even if it is abundantly obvious prior to his statement that he will only confim what is readily apparent.

In Parshat Kedoshim we read the famous phrase, "קדושים תהיו - You shall be holy." These words epitomise the Judaic belief that mortal humans can rise to tremendous spiritual heights, and that we are not "damned" as christians would have us believe. These words imply the Jewish concept that everything in this world is to be used in our mission to attain closeness with Hashem. We believe that when we eat food, we only eat it so that we may have sustenance required to perform our task in this world. In a similar manner, we believe that we have been given the blessing of speech for a specific reason - for spiritual use. For this reason we thank Hashem for the food we eat, for the aromas we smell and the when we see sights of natural beauty, amongst other things. This concept is known as "elevating the mundane," of realising that everything in this world was created not out of coincidence, but by a supreme Creator. We learn that Hashem created the world with "עשר מאמרות - ten sayings," something we attest to when we say the Bracha, "שהכל נהיה בדברו - that everything was created by his word."

As Jews we try to emulate Hashem. To this end, we must understand the importance of everything that Hashem has given to us. We can maybe now understand the reason why the correction of the mistake made by one who is not careful with their speech is only initiated once a Kohen speaks and declares their condition - we have to appreciate the true value of each and every gift Hashem gives us. The question my friend posed all those years ago was a good one, but if he had known the meaning of this verse, he would never have been led to ask it. There's tremendously deep meaning contained within the words of the prayers set out for us by Chazal, and even if we don't understand their words, we are still commanded to say them.

We might think why this is, but if we understand the parallel of the Kohen who does not know the laws of Tzara'at, we will know that even if we do not understand the words, we are still effecting significant spiritual forces by speaking them. Now we can understand how it is that the Pasuk is worded "וטמא אתו," for it is only once the Kohen has spoken that the Tzara'at can come into force, even if the Kohen has no understanding of what actually constitutes Tzara'at, such is the power of speech.

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך!

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