Metsora: Seeing, not knowing

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Vayikra 14:33-35)

He visits the priest:
he, the owner of the house,
learned, dignified,
imposing

yet he speaks uncertainly
that maybe something
like a plague
has spread throughout his house.

He may think
there is no doubt
but eyes perceive the surface only
and from beneath the shadowed lesions
sparks of light may yet emerge.


This week’s parasha, Metsora, continues with a description of the purification of the leper, the diagnosis of whose lesions were the subject of last week’s parasha, Tazria. And then the Torah moves on with a curious instruction by God that when the people will enter the land, and He will inflict an “eruptive plague” upon someone’s house, the owner must come with a somewhat hesitant declaration to the priest.
In the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 71a, we read, “There never was a leprous house [to need destruction], and never will be. Then why was its law written? — That you may study it and receive reward.” So the Talmud seems to be telling us that what is important here is not the nature of the plague itself, rather what can be learned from examining it.
In a commentary on parashat Metsora, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen suggests that the parasha is teaching us a lesson about seeing. He says, “The early impressionists recognized that we don’t see details – we make them up to fill in the broad stroke pictures we grasp as we hurry by. We make up the rest according to what we want to see. Malcom Gladwell came to the same conclusion in his book “Blink.” Within two seconds of meeting someone or seeing a house, we jump to a series of conclusions about whether or not we will like that person or want to buy the house.
“Our imaginative faculty is a powerful tool. One can look at the lines and curves of one of Picasso’s or Braque’s cubist paintings and discern a figure. Our imagination can also create a picture of the person who is standing in front of us which is nothing like her.”
So Rabbi Cohen says “This week’s Torah portion is all about seeing. Not seeing only what you want to see but really seeing what is there.”
In these last two parashot, we read about the intricacies of this mysterious affliction that affects people, fabrics and buildings. He wonders what are we to infer from these texts. He mentions that one interpretive key to the Torah and a favored method of the Chasidic movement in the eighteenth century, is to ask how this is relevant in every place and every time. We no longer have a way to purify ourselves, nor priests to perform these rites, so how can this be applied today?
Rabbi Cohen brings one such answer from the work of Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Lainer* of Izhbitze, known as the Mei HaShiloach. The Izhbitzer says that the Kohen – the priest – represents the discernment that each of us potentially has. Rabbi Cohen says, “It is through service and devotion that we can actualize this potent ability of discernment which is called the Kohen. The Torah is teaching us then about discernment – about the ability to tell the difference between a physical and a spiritual ailment, about the importance of paying enough attention to be able to actually see what we are seeing.
“In light of this insight we can also understand the Talmud’s remark that this skin ailment is brought about as a result of slandering or speaking ill of another person. This is a second level of discernment. First we must attend to that which is in front of us and really understand the images that we process. Then we must filter the knowledge that we have accumulated and not repeat them verbatim merely for the sake of gossip.
“Finally, this spiritual practice of actualizing the Kohen function in ourselves can lead to radically transform the way that we live in the world.” Rabbi Cohen mentions the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) who suggests that most people progress through life only half awake, without assessing the possible consequences of their actions. “In order to be fully awake I must attempt to be conscious of the fact that my actions – what I buy, how I drive, how I vote – affect others (whom I do not know) in profound ways.” He concludes that an enhanced awareness of the impact of our deeds is the first step in repairing the world.

In his book The Language of Truth** Rabbi Arthur Green brings the commentary of the Sefat Emet on this verse. The Sefat Emet, too, labels this a strange announcement to be made by the house owner and he cites Rashi, who explains that the Canaanites had hidden gold treasures inside the walls of their houses, and thus when the plague appeared and the Israelites were forced to destroy their houses, they would find the treasure! The Sefat Emet questions why the Creator would need to design such a convoluted mechanism in order to let the Israelites access the treasure. So he teaches that the real “hidden treasures” are the hidden sparks of holiness in the most material of things. Rabbi Green explains further, “The only “hidden treasures” we need seek out are those hidden by God Himself, and these are hidden throughout reality. The only houses we need to destroy in order to find them are those we ourselves construct, the blinders we keep setting up to keep us from seeing the light within. We are our own Canaanites; we are our only Israel.”

In another commentary on Tazria-Metsora from 2012, Dr Rachel Anisfeld too addresses this theme of looking beneath the surface. She says that we tend to see things superficially, and it was the priest’s job to look deeper. She cites Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Warsaw ghetto rebbe, who, before the war, authored a book called B’nei Machshavah Tovah (which has been translated as “Conscious Community”) in which he details a strategy for training one’s mind to perceive God in the universe. “What you see with your plain eyes, he says, is merely the outer form; one can learn to perceive the inner being of things, to feel God’s constant presence in the world.”

In his book A Partner in Holiness*** (Vol II), Rabbi Jonathan Slater brings the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. On this parasha, the Berdichever also cites Rashi, and he too, indicates that the hidden treasures denote sparks of holiness that are raised up in the service of the Creator. “When we raise up a spark, we raise up its innerness, leaving aside its externality. The outside that we throw away is the source of the eruptive plagues in the house: it is the leftover husk disconnected from the spark that rots.”
Rabbi Slater notes that when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak transfers the emphasis from treasures of gold to holy sparks, he is teaching us that our truest joy is not to be found in material things, however valuable. “We will be happy only when we seek God, seeing the possibility of connecting to the Divine in everything.” He adds another teaching of the Berdichever, “…we make a mistake when we turn up our noses at what “stinks.” That is, the eruption in the houses seems to be a negative event. The Midrash surely tries to make this something positive. Levi Yitzchak goes a step further. Everything is made up of a mixture of good and bad, of internal and external, of spiritual and material. The two interact and are interdependent. Without the spark (spiritual), the physical dies, becomes waste and rots. But without the form (physical), the spark cannot be present in the world, filling it with divine presence. When we divide the world up into what we like (what is pleasant) and what we do not like (what is unpleasant, rotten and stinky), we might miss out on seeing God’s presence in all things. We might be tempted to think that there is nothing spiritual in houses and the like. We will be even more tempted to think so when there erupts some sort of rot or plague. We would be wrong. Indeed the eruption itself is the sign that there is a spark present that needs to be redeemed. It is in reconnecting with the rot, opening it up to reveal the spark, that we can encounter true joy.”
Rabbi Slater adds that the episode of the Israelites sandwiched between the Egyptian chariots and the sea [topical for the upcoming festival of Pesach] epitomises the sort of seeing that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is exhorting us to employ. Moses tells the people, who are ready to flee back to Egypt:”Have no fear! Stand still and witness the deliverance that God will work for you today; for the Egyptians you will see today, you will never see again; God will battle for you; so be silent!”
The Berdichever, he says, is telling us “To be saved in our lives, to truly see God’s salvation, we have to pay attention even in the moments of our greatest fear, even in the face of the most horrifying occurrence. Our capacity to maintain contact with the terrifying and horrific allows us to know what is true and [bear] witness to it. When we do not turn away, we are able to testify that “this, too” is part of God’s world.” Rabbi Slater notes that the berachot of sight and awareness do not shy away from blessing the “bad” as well as the “good” – there is a blessing on bad news, on thunder, on seeing unusual-looking people. “Nothing” he concludes “is beneath God’s notice, and nothing should be beyond our attention.

And finally, in a further commentary on Metsora, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5445, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addresses the unusually tentative terms in which a supposedly self-assured house owner is to couch his announcement to the priest about the lesions that have afflicted his house: “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes “Modern men and women like to pretend that we have a direct pipeline into reality that we know, in an absolute and ultimate way, about ourselves, about the world around us, about true wisdom. Forgetting that previous generations were equally sure about the truths they “knew”, that the earth was flat, that the universe was a few thousand years old, that women were inferior to men, and that we now view their certainties with scorn, we presume that our most cherished verities will last forever. We confuse our grasp of reality with reality itself, our understandings of humanity with humanity, our arrogant self-confidence with truth.”
He says that this confusion is not new or unique to modernity, and he believes that it is this
“superficial smugness” that the parasha comes to challenge. The ancient rabbis were quick to notice this unusual hesitancy in a culture in which epidemics were considered serious and far-reaching events.
And the Torah tells him what to say, regardless of his own knowledge. The Torah mandates this line, regardless of the knowledge of the afflicted homeowner. As the Mishnah in Nega’im 12:5 notes, “Even if he is a Torah scholar and knows for certainty that it is a plague-spot, he shall not declare outright, “It is a plague-spot,” but “Something like a plague-spot.”
The Torah is normally very clear in its dualities: kasher/treif; permitted/forbidden; clean/unclean. So it seems there is something underlying this mandatory expression of hesitation.
Rabbi Shavit Artson suggests, “I think that the Torah is teaching a kind of religious/intellectual humility to its followers. We are not God, and we are far from perfect. The way we acquire knowledge and wisdom is limited by our own five senses, our own life experiences, and our own subjective intuition. We do not observe from some neutral or privileged place. Instead, each one of us can only see what our eyes will see, can only understand by building upon the analogies of what we already know. Human wisdom and judgment is, of necessity, limited, imperfect, and provisional.
As we continue in life, we learn new facts, new ways of thinking, new experiences, all of which allow us to revisit our own convictions and beliefs, to challenge our own insights and dogmas. While we continue to assert our own understandings, the Torah is suggesting that we do so with the humility borne of knowing that we might be wrong, that our most passionate conviction may be erroneous, or based on something we will come to reject later on. This religious humility, and the consequent courage to fashion a life of meaning based on a provisional fix on timeless truth, is the highest form of saintliness—blending as it does the courage of one’s convictions with the recognition that good people may not share those convictions and they may not be wrong. In fact, because of our limited vision, we may all have only a partial truth, so that different and conflicting perceptions may each be partially true and partially distorted by our finitude.”
He concludes, “As the ancient midrash, Otiot de-Rebbi Akiva notes, “truth has legs.” Scurrying as it does, truth eludes final capture or complete possession. We are all seekers along the way, all wandering in the wilderness, never quite making it into the Promised Land, but struggling to come closer to our sacred home.”

 

*Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854) was a Chasidic thinker and founder of the Izhbitzer-Radzhyn dynasty of Chasidic Judaism.

**The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger [1847 – 1905] translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

***A Partner in Holiness Vol II Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Jonathan P Slater.
[R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev 1740 – 1810].

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