Knowing Our Place
This week’s double Sedra continues along the theme of ritual purity, specifically when it comes to post childbirth and the necessity of going to the Mikvah. The mitzvah of a Brit Milah is recounted and then the Torah focuses mainly on Tzaarat, a horrible disease which would usually strike its victims because of Lashon Harah (slanderous speech). Being afflicted with Tzaarat was highly unpleasant, very obvious to those around you, and difficult to alleviate.
If we open up Rashi to the beginning of the Sedra, we can see that he makes an interesting observation. He notes that last week in parshat Shemini, the Torah enlightens us with laws about animal purity, and this week we move on to human purity – surely this should be the other way around? Human beings are essentially at the centre of the world, and we are the dominating force inside this world. Would it not feel more correct to discuss laws that pertain to us, before that of animals?
Rashi answers this question by pointing out an obvious fact; the Creation of the World was also in this same order. God first created nature, then animals; only on the 6th day was mankind created. Thus, it would be acceptable for the laws of purity to be given in that same order here in our sidrot also.
So this only further emphasises our question – why would the stories in the Torah prioritise animals over humans?
To answer this, we must understand why mankind was only formed in the last moments of Creation. Various midrashim and commentators discuss the exact nature of how we came into being, but, simply put, we were made last because we are the most treasured by God. This is best understood with the use of the following analogy. When preparing for a house guest, we make sure that everything is perfect. The bed is made, the room is tidy, the bathroom is well stocked, there are clean sheets and towels, and even a chocolate on the pillow. We like to make sure every detail is taken care of to meet the needs of the guest. The more important or treasured the guest, the more attention to detail there is. This is the same regarding how God sees us, his people. We are the most treasured of guests in this world. He loves us, and wants the best for us; therefore, in creating our home – this world, God created everything else first so it would feel comfortable and perfect upon our arrival.
I take from this two important points. The first is to always remember that we are merely guests in this world. We have free choice in how we treat it, what we do and how we act, but we are only here for a small amount of time and we need to think of what legacy we leave future generations. Secondly, we must also think about how we treat other guests, our neighbours both near and far. How sensitive are we to the needs of others and what is our impact on the world?
This is how we are supposed to view our lives in this world, not as though we own it. It is not ours, and because of that, we are somewhat restricted in what we can do. However, we must also remember how treasured and important we are to God and our centrality to the world.
Tazria begins, picking up where we left off last week, by detailing the laws and applications of spiritual purity, after which the Sedra move focus to the laws of Tzaraat.
Tzaraat, was a disease, commonly translated as leprosy (although the commentators are far from unanimous on this). Being afflicted with Tzaarat was highly unpleasant, very obvious to those around you, and difficult to alleviate.
Only a Kohen could determine what actually constituted Tzaarat, but its symptoms included patches of discolouration on skin and/or clothing, which were caused by the person speaking lashon harah (evil gossip). Those suffering would be taken outside the camp, into an area of quarantine, and made to stay there until the symptoms subsided. After such a time, special procedures would have to be undertaken in order to reintegrate the affected person to everyday society.
There are many interesting ideas that our Rabbis learn from this disease, its symptoms and rituals of rehabilitation. I would like to focus on the role of the Kohen.
It was only a Kohen that could diagnose the indicators and determine what action to take. What is so special about a Kohen? They were given responsibilities in the Temple, but why were they best equipped to help with this specific issue?
We are taught in the writings of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the fathers, commonly studied during the summer months on Shabbat Afternoon) that “Be from the students of Aaron, love peace, pursue peace, love people, and bring them close to Torah.”
Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, and his family were known for their loving-kindness and were pursuers of peace. They had an innate love for people and their community, and it was with compassion they cared for others. It was most fitting that at a time when people would feel isolated, embarrassed and alone, the Kohanim would care for them.
In our lives we all know people like this. Growing up there was the friend that we could depend on no matter what. The person that no matter your position you are always comfortable to turn to, who will go above and beyond to help others, and care for their friends in all types of situations. It is that type of person that our society should be filled with.
Can we all be that person? Are we able to reach out with love and compassion, not just to our friends, but for those who are truly in need? The lesson from Aaron HaKohen is to not be a silent witness to the sufferings of others. To show compassion for those around us, and take responsibility to help them through their struggles. This is something each and every one of us can learn from and in doing so we will be able to affect change on any level.