Summary: Parashot Tazria-Metsorah are the 4th & 5th in the Book of Leviticus comprising Chapters 12:1 – 15:33. Having previously delineated laws to the Kohanim against drinking wine while serving in the Mishkan, and to the general population laws of eating only kosher animals and the spiritual impurity from contact with that which is not kosher, these two parashot continue to describe a state of personal purity or impurity.
The main themes of Tazria-Metsorah are child birth, Tsara’at (inflammations appearing on skin, hair, clothing or buildings), and unusual genital discharges as well as menstruation.
Tazria declares in great specificity the spiritual status resulting directly from these events, or even indirectly should another person come in contact (through touch, sitting or spittle) with those who were adversely affected.
Metsorah describes various purification ceremonies for those who experienced Tumah (spiritual impurity), including the double-bird ceremony where one was offered and the second was set free. It also includes laws for Tsara’at found in a home, before concluding with laws related to impurity caused by sexual discharges.
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Comment: The ceremony to cleanse a Metsorah which required taking 2 live birds, offering one as a sacrifice, then dipping the other along with a piece of cedar wood, hyssop branch and crimson thread in the blood of the slaughtered bird appears only one other place in the Torah. A separate reference to using the cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread combination is related to the Red Heifer whose ashes were used to purify those who had contracted the highest degree of spiritual impurity through contact with the dead.
Several commentators explain that Tsara’at resulted from petty theft, jealousy and/or improperly treating information about others – spreading slander or gossip. They suggest that being forced into isolation outside the encampment was ‘just punishment’ which fitted the crime.
The ritual itself seems distressing. To take a live bird and dip it in the blood of one of its own kind before releasing it into the wild, today would be considered inhumane. But we might suggest the intended impact was to demonstrate to the offender, the seriousness of their crime – they were quite literally standing on the threshold, the dividing line between life and death.
Their actions – intended to harm or destroy the sanctity of national life, verbally harming, shaming or maligning others – caused them to be cast out from the privilege of communal security and safety. For whom among us can survive entirely without reliance on fellow human beings?
Additionally, from the penultimate verse in Parshat Metsorah it explains ‘these laws were intended so the Children of Israel wouldn’t die in their impurity, by making impure My dwelling in their midst.’ Just as the 2 sons of Aharon from Parshat Shemini were struck down in service of the Almighty for their inappropriate behaviour, so too were the general population proscribed to a correct path for their own well-being.
Though today we lack a Temple that houses the Divine presence, it still is in our benefit to take heed to these ritualistic laws, for in so doing we enable our clothing, our homes, ourselves and our most intimate family members to become attuned to and experience G-d’s spiritual presence.
LEVITICUS OVERVIEW: The Book of Leviticus spans the 4-6 weeks in which Bnei Yisrael were encamped at the base of Mt Sinai learning from Moshe that which G-d commanded him atop the mountain. It was a time for inaugurating the Mishkan and inducting the Kohanim before the nation began its journey toward Canaan.
The third of the 5 Books of Moses, Leviticus, is also known as Torat Kohanim (Law of the Priests) because it contains a detailed explanation of the daily, weekly and annual Mishkan ritual cycle. It also contains well-known codes for Jewish behaviour still relevant today – Kashrut, Family Relationships, Shabbat and Festivals. Many of these commandments enabled Bnei Yisrael to remain in a state of ritual purity and become a Sanctified Nation. Ultimately, beyond the laws governing interaction with the Divine, there were social justice laws intended for interacting with a wider world.