By Ben Goelz
This is the grossest part of the Torah. It’s called Tazria. It comes from the book of Leviticus. It’s about the laws of impurity, or tzaraat. Tazria literally means “she gives birth”. It explains in excruciating detail about the laws that G-d issued to Moses and the Israelites. The first kind of tzaraat happens when a woman gives birth. When a woman gives birth to a male, she is impure for seven days. On the eighth day, his flesh is circumcised. She will remain impure for thirty-three days after the circumcision, and will not be allowed to touch any consecrated thing or eat any consecrated food. When she gives birth to a girl, she will be impure for 66 days after birth. The extra days might be because she will also give birth.
The second kind of tzaraat is when a scaly infection develops and appears to go deeper than the skin. It will be reported to the priest and examined. If the infection is scaly and goes deeper than the skin, it is what we refer to as leprosy. But if it is white and does not go deeper than the skin, it is a rash, and the person will be isolated for seven days. After that time, the priest will come back, and examine the infection. If the infection has not changed, they will be isolated for another seven days. Then the priest comes back, and if the infection has faded, then the person is pure.
The third kind of tzaraat is swelling. If the priest sees a swelling with white discolorations on it as well as normal skin, it is chronic leprosy and the person is impure, but it is on the skin of the body and the person will not be isolated. If the priest sees that the infection has covered the entire body, the person is pure. But when the skin turns back to normal, the person will come to the priest and the priest will conduct the examination. If the skin has turned white, the person is pure.
The fourth kind of tzaraat is a developing inflammation. When a white swelling or white discoloration streaked with red appears, the infected person will see the priest. If the priest sees that the infection is lower than the rest of the skin and the hairs have turned white, it is leprosy that broke out in the inflammation. But if there is no white hair and the infection is not lower than the rest of the skin, it is not leprosy, and the person will be isolated for seven days. Then the priest will come back and examine the infection. If the infection has spread, it is leprosy. But if it has remained stationary, the person is pure.
I think this portion is really about fear.
What I chanted said: ‘Tear your clothes, put cloth over your head down to your upper lip, and walk down the street beating your chest and yelling, ‘Impure, Impure!’ to warn others of your condition. Then you will be isolated in a dwelling outside the camp.” The other parts say to isolate the person with the leprous infection, along with their entire family. Wait, their entire family? Doesn’t that seem a tiny bit overboard? Just a little overkill? To me, the answer is yes, but I see their reasons. They feared the infection, thinking it was a curse from God, and isolated them, thinking that if they touched the person, they would inherit the curse. The family had daily interaction with the infection.
This was also a form of community protection. If the family got out on the streets, they could indirectly transfer the “curse”. The only logic I don’t understand is that you have to have 10 people to say all the important prayers. The Misheberach is the prayer of healing. Unless you have a family of 10, you can’t pray to get better. Shouldn’t the priests realize this? Also, the priests were assigned to perform all the examinations. With all due respect to Rabbi Rose, I don’t go to him when I am sick, do you?
The Israelites may not have been the first to isolate people, but many other great nations did the exact same thing years later. India (where there are still more than 1,000 leper colonies), China, Romania, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam, and Japan. Hawaii also has a still-existing-camp for lepers that started way back in 1866. They established the leper camp in Kalaupapa, Hawaii, and it still has 27 people in it, out of the original 8,000. The Los Angeles Times talked about a person who was exiled for 50 years, starting at age 21 and ending at age 79. That’s a long time to not be able to leave the island, even if it is Hawaii.
A common misconception about leprosy is it makes your limbs fall off. It doesn’t. Although it did turn fatal, all it did was make a sort of black scale on your face, body, anywhere you were infected. Fear is a strong motivator, maybe the strongest. When faced with wiping out the entire camp, people will do anything to prevent that from happening.
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