וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹֽר: זֹאת תִּֽהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָֽהֳרָתוֹ…
Va’yedabeir YHVH el Moshe lei’mor: zot tih’yeh torat ha’metzora b’yom tohorato …
YHVH said to Moses: “This is the Torah (instruction) for the person with the skin affliction so that they may be restored to wholeness … (Leviticus 14:1).
Metzora is among the most obscure sections of the Torah. Metzora, along with the latter chapters of the preceding portion Tazri’a, describes a variety of physical symptoms that make a person temporarily unfit to be close to God, and the rituals required in order to restore that person to fitness. From our modern rational perspective, these chapters appear to be some strange and primitive medical manual. But as I have previously explained, to understand Leviticus we must apply metaphor and analogy more than logic.
The world, the human community and the human body can all be dwelling places for the Divine glory. The difference between these realms is that while it is a relatively simple matter to perceive the Divine glory in the natural world, continual effort is required to maintain human society in a manner that allows us to sense that glory and presence in our midst. Human society can easily become debased, a place of darkness and evil. God’s presence in our midst is not a given. The task of the Children of Israel is to maintain a society in which that Divine glory can be felt and perceived: “You shall be holy, for I, YHVH, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). “Build me a holy dwelling, that I might dwell in your midst” (Exodus 25:8). “You shall be a nation of priests, a holy people” (Exodus 19:6). If the Children of Israel, individually and collectively, can make their humanly wrought society a fitting dwelling place for the Divine presence, they will then align themselves with God’s creation, in which the Divine presence already overflows. As above, so below: We will be manifesting our true potential as beings made in the image of God.
What does “holy” mean? In English, holy derives from the Old English word that also gives us “whole” and “heal.” Holiness is wholeness. In order to be a dwelling place for God, we must be whole. We must have integrity. The Hebrew term for “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ kadosh and has similar associations. That which is kadosh is able to house the Divine presence. The opposite of kadosh is חָלָל halal, the root of which means “desecrate,” but literally refers to openings or punctures. Thus, both the Hebrew and English root words tell us that if one’s moral integrity is compromised (if one’s container is leaky, as it were), one is unable to house the Divine presence.
Tazri’a and Metzora describe conditions in which integrity is damaged, and manifests as a physical set of symptoms. The Torah calls this condition tzara’at. Tzara’at, which has been incorrectly rendered into English as “leprosy,” derives from the same root as metzora; the מְצֹרָע metzora is the person who suffers from צָרָעַת tzara’at. Tzara’at can afflict a person, a garment or even a house. It breaks up the integrity of the skin of the body, or the cloth of a garment, or the walls of a house with discoloration. Metaphorically tzara’at appears to be an outer manifestation of inner loss of integrity. The body, the home or the community, rather than maintaining a secure dwelling place for Divine energy, has become leaky and drafty, unable to host the Divine Presence. There must be a way to heal and to recover from this spiritual ailment so that a person may rejoin the holy community.
It is interesting to note that ancient rabbinic commentators also assign a metaphoric meaning to this affliction. Using wordplay, the rabbis rework מְצֹרָע metzora — the person afflicted with this spiritual disorder — into מוֹצִיא רָע motzi rah, which means one who draws out the bad. In the rabbinic telling, a person who is a metzora has habitually spoken in hurtful ways: slander, tale-bearing, rumor-mongering — that is, any use of language that can damage or destroy another’s reputation. For the rabbis, tzara’at is the physical symptom of a spiritual disease. The metzora draws out the bad rather than the good, using language to break down rather than build up. We could say that this person has “loose lips” and cannot contain himself adequately. But “I couldn’t contain myself” is never an adequate excuse. Conscience, empathy and thinking before one speaks are all necessary preconditions for the experience of holiness. Those who “leak” harmful words have lost their integrity. Holiness and wholeness have been lost, and the Divine presence cannot manifest there.
According to Leviticus, the metzora, the one afflicted with tzara’at, must leave the camp and wait seven days. This does not appear to be a punishment, but rather, a treatment. We might even speculate that this period outside the camp is an opportunity for reflection, a retreat of sorts. The כֹּהֵן cohein (which means “priest”), whose role is to maintain the dwelling place for God in the Israelite camp, carefully inspects the metzora to see if they have healed. If their skin is uniform once again, the cohein leads them through an elaborate ritual of reintegration into the community. The ritual includes an offering to God. The Hebrew term for offering is קָרְבָּן korban, which means “drawing near.” Healed and whole, the individual is now able to be intimate with God once more.
Again, metaphorically, we might say that an inner state of disconnection or fragmentation has been resolved, and focus and energy have been restored. If our energy and attention are distracted, leaking, dissipated, we cannot remain aware of or address the great majesty and mystery in which we dwell and which dwells within each of us. The kohein might be thought of as the spiritual healer who examines us carefully and guides us back into connection with the Divine.
I invite you to think about the ways that you restore a sense of wholeness to yourself when you feel fragmented or feel that you have damaged your integrity. As you restore your inner focus — and as you take any external actions you determine necessary to make amends and restore wholeness to yourself and to your relationships — may you experience the grace, the goodness and the speechless awe that comes with the awareness of being filled with Life Unfolding.