Saturday, April 25, 2009

Happy New Year!
A Tazria‘-Metzora‘ DvarTorah

The first משנה in מסכת ראש־השנה tells us that there are actually four ראשי שנה — four new year's days.

The first of ניסן is ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים — the new year for calculating kings' reigns, and for counting months and holidays. Not long before פסח we read the parsha of החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, that ניסן, the month of liberation, is the first of all months.

Then there's the first of אלול, ראש השנה למעשר בהמה — the beginning of each yearly cycle for tithing livestock.

There's the first of שבט, or according to the other opinion in the משנה, the one we follow, ט"ו בשבט a.k.a. ראש השנה לאילנות, the beginning of each yearly cycle for tithing fruit trees.

And then there's the first of תשרי, the ראש השנה that we celebrate as "ראש השנה" — the New Year for years, for the שמיטה and יובל cycles, and for some other agricultural calculations, as well.

This past week I heard a lecture by ר' יובל שרלו. R' Cherlow is the ראש ישיבה of the ישיבת הסדר in פתח־תקוה in Israel, and one of the founders of צֹהַר, an organization that tries to help heal the divide between religious and secular Jews in Israeli society.

He said that in his ישיבה, he calls יום העצמאות, Israeli Independence day — which is coming up this coming Wednesday — ראש השנה למדינה. The New Year for the State of Israel.

Now let's just hold that thought — יום העצמאות as ראש השנה למדינה, the New Year for the State, and put it off to the side for a few minutes, while we discuss this morning's Torah reading.

One of the dominant topics in תזריע and מצורע is the mysterious malady known as צרעת.

The Torah tells us that צרעת — particularly-defined discolorations of the skin — can make a human being טמא, ritually impure.

Similar discolorations can have the same effect on clothing, and on houses.

רמב"ם and others see צרעת as a supernatural signal, warning the afflicted individual against speaking לשון הרע. The גמרא in מסכת ערכין brings a play on words — a person receives צרעת, and becomes a מצורע because they were מוציא שם רע, a slanderer.

In this view, the three forms of צרעת — on people, clothes, and houses — are stages of warning or punishment. When someone begins to spread rumors and libel, the first thing to go is their home. צרעת appears on the walls, as an early-warning system. If they persist in their destructive ways, eventually the house will have to be disassembled. If they still don't learn their lesson, the צרעת moves to their clothes, until the clothes need to be burned.

And in the end, if they still persist in misusing their God-given power of communication, the צרעת attaches itself directly to their body.

This is probably the most popular understanding of how צרעת worked. You'll find it in numerous parsha sheets and children's books.

But there are other explanations for the phenomena of צרעת and the rules of how to diagnose and deal with it — and I'd like to concentrate particularly on צרעת בתים, the impure discolorations that afflict houses.

In the same place in מסכת ערכין that includes the idea that a מצורע is a מוציא־שם־רע, a slanderer, one of the other opinions brought is that צרעת of houses isn't a punishment for misused speech, but for theft; similarly, another opinion identifies the relevant sin as stinginess.

As part of the house צרעת procedure, the building is emptied. All its contents are removed and placed outside. This way, if the house will be declared טמא, the contents will remain pure. However, while everything is outside, passers-by can — according to the "theft" opinion — identify their own stolen property, or — according to the view that blames צרעת on stinginess — they can see the wrench that the house's inhabitant denied owning when they asked to borrow it last week.

On the other hand, the צרעת of houses might actually be a good thing.

צרעת בתים can only occur in the Land of Israel, and רבי שמעון בר יוחאי claims that צרעת marked the location of buried Cana‘anite treasure that בני־ישראל inherited upon conquering the land. Breaking apart the walls of these houses wasn't a punishment but a challenge and a reward.

צרעת בתים, the צרעת of houses which can only occur in the Land of Israel, may be a guidepost, pointing the way to treasure and success, to better things to come; or it may be an alarm, an early-warning system alerting us that something is starting to go wrong. Theft, slander, selfishness —
our society
in our Land
may be beginning to break down.

So let's return to ר' שרלו and his ראש השנה למדינה.
יום העצמאות, he said, is not just about הלל or other newer synagogue rituals; it's not about concerts, parties, and barbecues in the park. It is about those things — because ראש השנה is a holiday, and so ראש השנה למדינה is a celebration of independence, creativity, and God-willing eventual complete redemption.

But ראש השנה is also a day of judgement — a day of looking back and looking forward.

And so ראש השנה למדינה needs to also be a day of paying attention, and of taking account.

The צרעת of houses could only occur in ארץ־ישראל — and it may have been a sign of coming good; or it could have been a sign
of developing danger; but it was always a signal to stop and think.

We don't have צרעת of any kind anymore. If you have Hansen's disease, psoriasis, mold on your clothes or mildew on your walls, and you're living in Israel, you don't have to go find a כהן because maybe it's צרעת and you need to know if you're טמא or טהור.

But we do have
יום העצמאות
ראש השנה למדינה
a day of celebration and of paying attention; a day to think about all the ways that things can and do go wrong; and all the ways to make sure that they go right. And when you get down to it, even the basic fact that Jews in the world today after two thousand years finally once again do have those challenges to face — is in itself a reason to celebrate.

חודש טוב
and שנה טובה.


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