This week and next, we encounter the Torah’s ritual and law regarding tzara’at – skin afflictions. While not easy reading, Tazria (this week’sparasha) and Metzora (next week’s parasha), serve up valuable and important lessons. Tazria’s half of the conversation focuses on diagnosis, that is to say on the proper identification of a skin affliction that might render an individual tame, impure. The key player in the story is thekohein, priest. Tamar Kamionkowski, professor of Bible at RRC, draws out the priestly role in her elegant new commentary on Leviticus (Wisdom Commentary: Leviticus (2018)) in two different ways.
First, the priest as speaker. Kamionkowski points out that the priest “takes no action toward healing”. Rather, the priest looks and declares. What’s more, it is the “priest’s pronouncement” that “changes the person’s status at the moment” first to impure and then, hopefully, back to pure. Quoting Jonathan Sacks, Kamionkowski affirms that language can be used “to create new moral facts.” The priest’s ‘performative utterance’ is the difference maker in the Torah’s take of the individual with a skin affliction. Words, speech, language, especially when spoken, profoundly matter; they shape, frame, and potentially transform reality.
[Pier Francesco Mola (Italian, 1612-1666)]
The second element of the priest’s work is to look, to examine, to see. Leviticus 13’s recurring phrase is v’ra-ah ha’kohein – ‘and the priest will look’ – repeated no fewer than a dozen times. The early rabbis went to great lengths to define and describe how and when the priest looks. As on example among many, Mishna Nega’im (2:2) requires that the priests examination take place only when an individual’s affliction can be clearly seen. “They may not inspect skin disease in the early morning or in the evening or within the house or on a cloudy day, for then the dull white would appear bright white; or at midday, for then the bright white would appear dull white.”
Kamionkowski powerfully spells out the implications. “Only when someone takes the time to look very closely at a bodily expression, can that condition be named…It is about noticing the details that most of us prefer to avoid. Leviticus 13 publicly acknowledges that boils, rashes, scabs, and pus are all possible expressions of the human body… As readers of these texts, we are momentarily asked to pay attention, as the priests were required to do. Instead of reading these chapters with disgust or boredom, we might approach them with curiosity and with awe for all the ways that the body can express itself in the course of living and healing”.
Kamionkowski’s language inspires. Look very closely; notice the details; pay attention; approach with curiosity and with awe… The inherent challenge to us as latter day readers is to reckon with the way(s) in which we see others. Parashat Tazria invites us, in imitation of Leviticus’s ideal priest, to pay real and close attention, to notice the details, and to encounter one another with curiosity and with awe. And to remember that our words, especially when spoken, actually shape and change reality.
Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi David