One Minute Torah – Tazria 5779

Two kids are sitting in my office, glaring at each other with righteous indignation. “She said…..” “He called me…..” “Hold it!”  I tell them.   […]

Two kids are sitting in my office, glaring at each other with righteous indignation.

“She said…..”

“He called me…..”

“Hold it!”  I tell them.  

It’s not the first time the teacher needed my help to manage a fight between these two.  Each of them has deep insecurities that trigger one another potently. But they are good kids, and I adore each of them. So that’s my first task – to make sure they know that I love them both.  Only after we’ve established the inherent goodness of each of these children, then we can dig in and find the shards that are poking holes in this relationship. Patiently, I review the entire fight with the kids. I help them see their mistakes not as definitive of who they are, but as splinters that can be removed.

This week’s parshah, Tazria, is on the surface an ancient medical handbook. God instructs Moses to instruct the priests regarding postpartum care, venereal diseases, skin diseases, and dangerous molds.

A person with a clearly contagious skin condition had to dwell outside the camp. But what about a person with a more ambiguous skin condition?  Verse 13:32 stipulates:

וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-נֶגַע הַנֶּתֶק, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים

The translation you’ll find in the books we use at services is:

“The priest shall isolate the person with the scall affection for seven days.”

This translation accords with nearly all the classic commentators. It is the interpretation I remember from my childhood in Orthodox day schools. The person leaves the camp for seven days and then gets reexamined again by the priest.

But surprisingly, that’s not what the verse says!  Here’s a more literal translation:

“The priest will close the scaly wound for seven days.”

The verse does not say to close off or isolate the person, but rather the wound.  Most scholars, medieval and modern, assumed this to be a shorthand for isolating the person with the wound.  But one 13th Century scholar, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, known as the Rosh, had a radically different understanding. He taught that the priest should literally isolate the wound, by wrapping it in a bandage. The person could remain in the camp.

If these diseases were actual, physical ones, the Rosh’s approach might have been dangerous. But many scholars throughout the ages have understood them as metaphors for spiritual ailments. In that context, the Rosh was ahead of his time.

We all have ugly pieces to us. How often do we see another’s worst self, and shun the entire person for it?  The Rosh is reminding us to isolate the badness, and then find a way to enter into relationship with all that is good in each of us.