In a few days we will celebrate Passover. On that night we will reenact the Exodus from Egypt, but this celebration makes no sense if we do not translate the ancient narrative of our liberation into our own contemporary terms. What does it mean for us today? We must take an active role in the liberation of our fellow human beings, but this also includes ourselves, because we too must be able to look inside and free ourselves from the very same dependencies that we have created. The performance of mitzvot is the way in which we can sanctify ourselves and sanctify our lives, bringing a bit of the divine into our world.
The Torah portion for this week, Metsorah (Leviticus 14-15) may seem far removed from that goal. Metsorah is the continuation of Tazria; last week’s parashah that lists the different types of “impurities” that we may incur, and how to get rid of them.
The Commentators have always struggled to explain the meaning of these «impurities.» We have gotten used to translating « tsara’ah, צרעה» by «leprosy», but it is actually a range of dermatological conditions like eczema or psoriasis. If these conditions are much less serious than leprosy, they are no less impressive, as Moses found in the episode of the burning bush (Exodus 4:6-7). The fact remains that the link between certain diseases and the condition of purity is difficult to understand. Many commentators have noted that Miriam was punished by such tsara’ah for having slandered the wife of Moses (Numbers 12) and they try to establish a link between the « impurity » and our state of moral impurity. However, this is a far cry from being able to explain the many other impurities mentioned in Metsorah.
In some cases of « impurity » we can find natural acts and even acts linked to the fulfillment of mitzvot, to which it is not possible to associate the negative charge of the word ‘impurity’ or even ‘dirty’, that we find in some translations. If over time, tradition has made menstruation a particular type of impurity, the Torah tells us that it is the “impurity” associated with birth or married relationships. In the Torah, this “impurity” applies equally to both men and women, only the intensity varies from case to case.
In the Torah, « impure » does not mean « bad » or «filthy », « impurity » only speaks about the inability to approach the shrine. The Torah does not judge the state of impurity morally, it only requires us to be aware of our own state, when we are « pure » or « impure » and, therefore, when we can approach the shrine.
The parashiot Metsora and Tazria try to codify the effect of the natural functions around procreation, the boundaries between life and death, and what is translated by «purity.» Our ancestors sought to understand what brought us close to God and what separated us from the Divinity. Their understanding and logic appear to us to be difficult, even foreign, but their quest is the same as ours is today when we go to the synagogue or when we do a mitzvah. As our ancestors did yesterday, we seek within our own means to get closer to the ideal towards which the Torah guides us.