Thursday, March 31, 2011

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."

Following the creation of the State of Israel, Jews around the world, and those in Israel specifically, we have reason to believe that the Ge'ulah - the end of the 2,000 year exile - is truly around the corner. We finally have (at least part of) historic Eretz Yisrael back in our hands; Hebrew, the only language in the world to have been successful revived, is the spoken language of the Israeli people, and Jewish culture is flourishing here in the Holy Land. But there are some effects of this two-millenium-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 made a comment to a Rabbi a few years ago, a comment that I perceived as somewhat radical. He suggested that we should pray in the way that Quakers do - that each person should speak to Hashem as he wants, without needing to turn to the fixed texts of the Siddur. In that way, argued my friend, our prayers would be more personal and more relevant. I can't remember the answer that the Rabbi gave, but I do tender an answer of my own now.

In this week's Parsha, we read of the condition called Tzara'at - an affliction that affected those who were spiritually ill. Upon discovering that a person was suffering from this ailment, certain conditions were imposed. For example, they would have to go through a quarantine process, amongst other things. However, all prohibitions and procedures would only start after 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 render a person 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. (As opposed to actually making that person impure by 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 "eternally damned" as Christians 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 eat it so that we may have gain the 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 know that even if one does not understand the words, their merely being spoken still calls significant spiritual forces into action. Of course it is important to understand that which one is saying, but even if one doesn't, we must be aware of the tremendous latent power in prayer. 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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