The Beauty of Leviticus 13

In my last post I criticized the careless application of the word “toxic” to human beings. The day I wrote it, I was invited to read (i.e., chant, leyn, cantillate)  a substantial part of the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) on April 29. Tazria first describes the purification process for women who have just given birth and then provides instructions that Aaron, his sons, and any priest must follow when examining and treating skin disorders. The latter part–contained in Chapter 13 of Leviticus–fascinates and moves me because of its intricacy, which (in my interpretation)  represents the intricacy of the human condition. The diagnoses are anything but careless.

The cantillation here poses challenges because of the verses’ grammatical complexity and the repetition of words and phrases. Normally, when preparing to read a portion, you can associate a particular phrase with its trope (melody); here you cannot, because each time the phrase comes up, the trope will be different. You must be entirely focused on the particularities and meaning of each verse. (I had more trouble with this portion than with any I have read before–but in its difficulty lies its beauty.)

Then there are the pronouns “hu” (masculine) and “hi” (feminine), which are so tricky that they elicited commentary from the medieval French rabbi and scholar Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105). These pronouns refer not to the nouns just before them, the predicates, but rather to the subject of the verse or even the subject of the set of verses. The subject may not even be named explicitly in the verse; you have to understand what it is. So you hear both “nega tzaraat hu” (he/it is the plague of leprosy, where the pronoun refers to an earlier “nega”) and “nega tzaraat hi” (it is the plague of leprosy (or whatever the disease actually was), where “it” refers to “michvat-esh,” a feminine compound noun meaning “a burning by fire”). To make things trickier still, the two pronouns are almost always spelled identically in Torah; editions with vowel markings will have the “u” or “i” marks, but a scroll will not. (Elsewhere “hu” and “hi” have distinct spellings.)

This grammatical complexity reflects the complexity of the skin diagnoses. Some conditions are contagious (impure); some are not. Some have to be watched over time. Some conditions that look threatening begin to fade a few days later; others that seem to have faded may erupt again. Each case needs to be recognized for what it is. Here are verses 13:1-5 (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying:
ב  אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
ג  וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר-הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ לָבָן, וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ–נֶגַע צָרַעַת, הוּא; וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ 3 And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
ד  וְאִם-בַּהֶרֶת לְבָנָה הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ, וְעָמֹק אֵין-מַרְאֶהָ מִן-הָעוֹר, וּשְׂעָרָה, לֹא-הָפַךְ לָבָן–וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים 4 And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days.
ה  וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע עָמַד בְּעֵינָיו, לֹא-פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר–וְהִסְגִּירוֹ הַכֹּהֵן שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, שֵׁנִית 5 And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague stay in its appearance, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more.

This is just the beginning of a long and intricate set of instructions. First, the person with the skin disorder (a rising, scab, or bright spot) goes before the priest. Certain symptoms definitely indicate a plague; others require inspection over time. But look at all those independent and subordinate clauses! Take verse 3: “And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” The trope (which reflects the grammatical structure) is of course as intricate as the structure itself. You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read these verses.

The beauty here is that only under extreme conditions is someone pronounced “impure”–and that person will then go through purification. While some of this may seem harsh and unpleasant, the whole point is to attend to each individual and to the community: to avoid isolating anyone unnecessarily or longer than necessary, to isolate those who really have the plague, and to purify them so that they can then come out of isolation.

Although this priestly ritual is long obsolete, it is not entirely different from a skin exam at the dermatologist’s office. It has other levels of meaning, though. To me this is a parable of human complexity and compassion; people have all sorts of problems and characteristics and should not be categorized crudely. If skin diagnosis is intricate and nuanced, how much more intricate and nuanced our judgments of each other can be! As with cantillation itself, the challenge is to hold the complexity.

Update: Yet there is simplicity here too! See my followup post.

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  1. Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity | Take Away the Takeaway

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