Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“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.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

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  1. The Beauty of Leviticus 13 | Take Away the Takeaway

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