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Failing to See Our Own Faults: Parashat Metzora

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 23/03/2022

This weeks Parsha Metzora, focuses on the possible physical ‘impurity’ of a person. Dr. Gila Vachman, Director of Torah Lishma in Tel Aviv and lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies, teaches a midrash that gives an entirely new perspective on seeing our own accountability.

Watch the video and read the article:

This week’s Parasha, Metsora, starts with the words: Zot tihyeh torat hammetzora beyom tohorato vehuva el hakkohen. Veyatza hakkohen el michutz lammachaneh vera’ah hakkohen vehinneh nirpa nega hatzara‘at min hatzarua’  (Lev. 14:2-3)

These verses describe the process of diagnosing leprosy (צרעת) and determining the leper’s recovery.

It should be noted that the biblical term tzaraat is not the same as the disease we know of today by the name of Hansen’s disease. If so, what can we learn, today, from these verses?

I believe that the keyword for this is the verb ראה, to see. This word appears many times in our Parasha, regarding the Kohen.

Now, tumah and tahara, purity and impurity, are the main principles in the book of Leviticus, and they repeat many times in different matters: the impurity of a woman who gave birth, the animals that we may or may not eat, etc. but it seems that the notion of seeing is unique to leprosy.

Unlike the rest of the tumah and tahara matters, which have clear rules and could be determined by any person, the decision about leprosy is exclusively in the hands – or actually, in the eyes – of the Kohen. Just think, what a great responsibility is given to the eyes of the Kohen: he holds the authority of deciding who is pure and who impure, who will have to sit alone far from his family and community and who may return to them, what will be burnt and what may be fixed. It all depends on his eyesight!

The Mishna in masechet negiim extends this subject and says: A Kohen who is blind in one eye or the light of whose eyes is dim should not inspect negaim (leprosy); for it says, “Wherever the priest’s eyes can see”. In other words, the Kohen must have perfect sight in order to diagnose the disease (נגע). A most important Mishna to this matter is this: All negaim may be examined by a person, except his own. Rabbi Meir ruled: not even the negaim of his relatives.

This Mishna became a famous idiom over the years, and the idea we can learn from it is expressed nicely in a story that is found in Midrash Tanhuma on our parasha: There was a certain priest who examined leprosy spots. When he became poor, he wanted to go abroad. He called his wife and said to her, “Because people used to come to me to show their leprosy spots, let me teach you, so that you may examine the leprosy spots. If you see a person’s hair with its follicle dried up, you will know that he is stricken; because for each and every hair, God has created its own separate follicle. If its follicle dries up, the hair dries up.”

His wife said to him, “But surely if for each and every hair god has created its own separate follicle, in your case, since you are a human being, with so many hairs on you and with your children being supported by you, is it not all the more certain that God will summon support for you?”

Apart from the interesting evidence that a woman is trained here to do a priestly job, this story carries an important message: in a reality where we have no temple and no tzaraat, the sages recruit the Kohen’s wife to remind us of a deficiency we all might have sometimes, out of focusing on other people’s defects, we fail to see our own faults.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Dr. Gila Vachman is a Lecturer in Midrash at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and coordinates The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s Torah Lishmah program at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Gila Vachman received her BA (summa cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew Literature, MA (summa cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah, and her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is also a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Born on Kibbutz Yavne, Dr. Vachman is married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.


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