Author's Notes on Parshat Tazria

1 Nisan 5779
April 6, 2019

In Parshat Tazria, we read of the individual inflicted with a Tzara’as (sometimes erroneously defined as leprosy). The illness, we learn, is caused by a spiritual impropriety (such as lashonha’ra) committed by the afflicted individual (who is known as the Metzora).

At the beginning of the purification process, the Metzora must call out “Tameh | Tameh” “Impure | Impure.” Rashi explains that this is a way for the Metzora to warn people to stay away from him. But why say it twice? Isn’t one Tameh enough to be effective? The Talmud (MoedKatan, 5a) answers this by saying that the first Tameh is to warn people to stay away from the Metzora. But the second one is to ask people to pray for his recovery.

The Talmud’s discussion of this process seems to tap into a typical human quality. I thought of this during one of my recent business trips. I took a shuttle from the rental car drop-off site back to the airport terminal. The bus was packed as the driver tried to load the last few bags. “Excuse me” he said as he tried to push his way forward. No one budged. Everyone ignored him. So he tried it in a louder voice: “I said, EXCUSE ME!!” All he wanted was a little help. To get anyone to pay attention, though, he had to say “Excuse me” twice. The first one was to be polite. Maybe the listeners thought nothing of it; he’s a bus driver and he’ll figure it out. But the second “Excuse me!!” got everyone’s attention and the situation was resolved. (If you think this is a unique phenomenon, try calling for your children to help. The first time, you might be ignored. The second time, they understand that you mean it.)

We look at the Metzora as a figurative leper – people were to stay away from him lest the infection be spread. But look at it from the Metzora’s perspective. Yes, he sinned. Does that mean that he does not want to repair the damage that he caused? It is certainly possible (if not likely) that wants to become pure again and wants people to help. After all, he stayed in the system and was willing to have the priest effect the cure instead of the dermatologist. Yet, he might have to say Tameh twice to convince others that he sincerely wants to change. The Talmud is trying to tell those of us who are not the Metzora that we have to listen to what the Metzora is really saying. He is not saying stay away from me; he is really saying “EXCUSE ME! Don’t be scared by my appearance. I need your help. Would you please pray for me and help me?”

The Torah does not tell us the tone of voice used to say Tameh | Tameh. But the vertical bar between the two words indicates a pause and suggests the possibility that the tone of voice may have changed. Maybe the first Tameh is said as he is embarrassed. In a low sheepish voice, he says (almost afraid to admit it) “I am impure.” Then he pauses, thinks about where he wants to be and says “Yes, I’m impure and I need to fix it; can you help?” Or, maybe he starts out saying in a loud defiant voice, “Yes, I’m impure. So what?” Then, he pauses and realizes what he’s done and says in a lower voice, maybe a little embarrassed, “I’m sorry. Yes, I’m impure and I need help.”

Either way, there is an important lesson to learn. Are we really listening to those around us? Are we paying attention to those who might need our help? When we seemed to be pushed away by those in trouble, are they really pushing us away or trying to draw us in so we can help them solve their problem?

Something to think about! Excuse me, I have to get back to work!