Friday, April 4, 2014

Watching What We Say

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (Lev. 14:1 – 15:33) picks up where last week’s left off, discussing the purification rituals for impurity brought about by a disease which the Torah calls “tzara’at”, which translates as “leprosy”, although its symptoms do not seem to resemble the disease we know as leprosy today.  This week’s portion creates even more confusion by talking about “leprosy” occurring in cloth or leather, or even in the walls of a house.  What kind of disease afflicts humans, clothing and walls?

The most common explanation given by the commentators is that tzara’at is not a physical illness, but a spiritual disorder.  As as example, the Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains the word “metzora” as a sound-alike for “motzi shem ra”, one who spreads evil talk; a gossipmonger.  It is no wonder why explanations like this one are given.  This is a very confusing text, and we look for explanations that make more sense than the literal one does.

However, we should be careful when making those kinds of associations.  In our liturgy, too, we sometimes run across phrases such as, “we are deaf to their pleas” or “our blindness causes their pain”.   How does it feel to a person who has a disease or a disability when they hear their affliction compared to a moral defect?  Perhaps we need to take those factors into account, and not use metaphors that we would not use if a person with the impairment in question was standing before us.

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