Tazria: Affliction

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the flesh of his skin a sore… The priest shall see the lesion…when the priest sees it… (Vayikra 13:1-3)

He nears the priest
bares his affliction,
heart throbbing,
awaiting the decree.

His cheeks flush red,
burning more
than scaly sores
under shameful scrutiny.

Attentive eyes
peruse his lesions,
moving then to search his face
to find the hidden light.

In his book, The Language of Truth – The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Arthur Green brings the teaching of the Sefat Emet in which he addresses these lesions which afflict the skin “or” (spelt with ayin). He cites the verse in Bereishit which says, “…the Lord God fashioned garments of skin for the man and his wife and He dressed them.” (Bereishit 3:21). The Midrash makes a play on the word “or” which also means light (spelt with aleph). The Midrash says that because of sin, the man and his wife came to be dressed in this coarse [scaly?] clothing, the skin of the snake. The Sefat Emet teaches that beforehand, Adam and Eve were spiritual beings (as he says humans will be again) and they entered their earthly bodies at this point. He adds that at the people were at this level too,  at the giving of the Torah, which is why it says of Moses, that the skin of his face was filled with light. But as we did not remain at that level, the afflictions reappeared – so the Midrash is relating the spiritual blemishes to the physical ones.
However, the Sefat Emet points out that skin is porous, and the tiny holes allow the light to shine through its “shells.” Only sin, he says, clogs up these pores, which is why “the leprous affliction” is translated in Aramaic as “segiru or closing.” And he adds that this is why the purification rites are entrusted to Aaron and his sons the priests, for they rectified the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rabbi Arthur Green adds, “ Here the word play between the Hebrew “or” and “or” (“skin” and “light”) becomes the vehicle for a profound assertion of ancient Hebrew myth: that behind and within the person of flesh there lies another self, one dressed only in pure light. That this is our true self is attested by the fact that it was our identity at the beginning of human history, and will be so once more at the end. Again, we have matter and spirit opposed to one another. But the Hassidic master, wanting to lessen this dichotomy, notes that our inner light can shine again through the very pores of our human skin! Even though we are again “blemished” and our skin has “closed up” after Sinai, the light still shines within us.”

Regarding the sentence, “The priest shall see the lesion…when the priest sees it…” the Meshech Chochmah wonders why the phrase is repeated, and he concludes that the first time it is literally as read. The second time, he says it means, “when the priest sees him…” – there is a different way in which the priest looks at him, to try to ascertain whether, in the time and situation that the sufferer finds himself, he is deserving of the impurity.

Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutna* says on the same sentence, that there is a hint embedded here, that when sizing up a person, we should not only look at his deficiency, in the place where he is afflicted, but also at the whole person, including his good qualities. He quotes Balak saying “…you only see a part … and not the whole…” (Bamidbar 23:13). So he says the priest first sees the lesion and then he sees him – all of him.

In a commentary on Parashat Metsora entitled Leper as Other, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/metzora_ajws.shtml, Lydia Bloom Medwin addresses the care and involvement  (described in Parashat Tazria) that the priest would display from the moment he was shown the skin affliction. He would carefully examine the lesion. If necessary he would isolate the patient, but visit again in seven days. After re-examining the sufferer, the priest might call for another seven days to wait and see. At that point, the patient might be pronounced pure or declared a leper. If the latter, the patient was temporarily placed outside the camp until fully healed. Bloom Medwin says, “Until the moment of removal from communal life, the potential leper represented an important obligation for community leaders. Even though community health and ritual purity were their primary responsibilities, the priests spent time addressing each person individually, seeing each face, and understanding each person’s pain.
“This ethic underlies the priests’ decision to wait two weeks before making the difficult ruling of expelling a member of the community. They realized that the sickness not only affected the skin and they took time to see past the surface affliction to engage with the person…”


* Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk (1821 – 1893) was born in Platsk . He was tutored by his father and showed early signs of great giftedness. His father died when he was 11, he was married at 14 and spent the next few years learning Torah with the support of his father-in-law. At 20 he became the Rav of the community of Shrensk where he founded a large Yeshiva. He subsequently moved to various communities to serve as the Rav (Gambin, Vurka and Poltosk). He finally reached Kutna where he remained from 1861 to his death. While there, he wrote three books on Halacha. He was friendly with the contemporary great Rabbis of Poland, including Chiddushei HaRim, R’ Hanoch Henich Alexander, and the Sefat Emet.

R’ Y.Y. Tronk was known for his love of the land of Israel, visiting in 1886 to encourage agricultural settlement, even visiting an etrog orchard which had been planted by his father-in-law and issuing a fervent plea to favour these etrogim over Greek and Italian ones! In 1889, he was one of the signatories on the first heter mechira for the Shemita year.


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