Written and Submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.
THREE NAMES FOR ONE SIDRA
Having the name “M’tzora” for this week’s portion might not bother us in our generation, probably because we are used to it. But as the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out, the name was once a subject of controversy, and there was a strong view that the sidra should be simply called “Zot Tih’yeh”, “This shall be”, which has none of the unpleasant associations of “M’tzora”, “A Leper”. Others used a euphemistic name, “Taharah” – “Purification”.
These two now unknown alternatives have the advantage of deriving, as does “M’tzora”, from the opening sentence of the portion, as well as being positive in their connotation.
On the one hand “M’tzora” signifies the main substance of the sidra, and though it is an unpleasant name it shows that bad things are a fact of life. On the other hand it leaves out the element of hope for a better future.
If one were to ask which type of name is more Jewish – the negative or the positive – the answer really must be “both”. Jewish history and the Jewish way of thinking encompass both suffering and pain, and also promise and continuity.
It’s a good thought for this time of the year just before Pesach. Our ancestors in Egypt had mixed emotions when they left the House of Bondage – sorrow at all the suffering of the generations of the enslavement, and excitement at becoming free and able to look forward to the future.
GOOD & BAD
The sidra begins with something that seems rather obvious –
“This is the law of the leper at the time when he is to be cleansed” (Lev. 14:1).
Actually this procedure is not so obvious at all. It makes an assumption – that the leper wants to be cleansed. It then says that in order to cleanse him there is a set procedure. How about a person who does not, for whatever strange reason, want to be purified? Don’t ask why a leper should be so stupid as to want to keep their status quo. People have their own psychology. Illness of any kind is no blessing in the opinion of most of us, but there are individuals who are exceptions to the rule.
The assumption the Torah makes is that any normal person wants to be better. It makes a second assumption, that healing is not only desirable but possible. From the Torah point of view, any illness, physical or mental, must have a cure somewhere, and it is the task of the medical profession to find it.
Judaism never said, as do certain other religions, that illness was part of God’s design and human beings had no right to intervene. We honour the physician because they are doing God’s work.
USING YOUR BRAINS
The haftarah of M’tzora (II Kings 7:3-20) is about four lepers who stood at the gateway of the city in time of famine and siege. The rule was that lepers were to stay out of the city, so they had no right to enter. Still they decided to go in. There was no food in the city. The lepers themselves had no food. They reasoned that whatever they did they would die – outside the city, inside the city, it made no difference.
The inhabitants of the city were in a state of nerves, and when the lepers entered they thought it was “the noise of a great host” and they panicked and ran away. The result is that when the lepers entered the city, “behold, there was no man there” (verse 5). The question we ask is why the citizens exaggerated so much, stampeded, and thought the enemy was at the door and that they were doomed.
The answer is an exercise in human psychology. Turning molehills into mountains is something that happens. It is no use telling people to use their brains and not lose their balance. Good leadership should be capable of seeing the signs as they really are, but often there is a lack of good leadership and there is a fear amongst the people that the leaders are appeasers who can’t see reality.
In our own day, the demagogues constantly exploit situations like this to the eternal detriment of everybody concerned. We could all learn from my French teacher at high school who had a habit of shaking a boy by the shoulders and saying, “Have some sense, boy, have some sense!” Teachers dare not shake their students any more, but “Have some sense, boy, have some sense!” is still good advice.
A PESACH FEATURE – FIRST-BORN FEARS
The Haggadah ensures we know about the plague of the killing of the first-born. In Jewish life we remind ourselves that our first-born were saved when we have a fast of the first-born on Erev Pesach.
In fact anyone who is the first-born child of a family knows that it isn’t an easy lot. The parents have never had a child before and they use the first-born to learn their parenting skills. With later children they are more confident.
In some cultures (the Biblical way of life is an example) the firstborn had special privileges. In some places the first child if a boy (the girls are a separate subject) inherited the estate and there was a set role in society for each succeeding child.
The general Jewish tendency, however, was not to have a fixed slot for anyone: Moses was the leader though not the first child. Other examples of people achieving special status without primogeniture are Levi, David and Solomon.
Is there literature on the first-born syndrome?
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Blogs: at http://www.oztorah.com