Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tazria, Calendars and Slander

Two weeks about leprosy! We continue our journey through Leviticus and the minutia of priestly concerns as we read Parashat Tazria this week and next week Metzora. Both portions focus on the disfiguring disease of leprosy. Most years, however, it is not two weeks, but only one week about such details. Why this year are we subjected to two weeks?

It is because this year is a leap year according to the Jewish calendar. In such a year we add an additional month. This added month of Adar, called Adar I, helps to reorient the calendar. The Jewish calendar is a combination of a lunar and solar calendar. The months are dictated by the cycle of the moon. The new moon begins the start of the month. The full moon indicates the middle. By the way it is not an accident that many of our holidays begin on the fourteenth of the month when there is a full moon in the sky. Imagine the days when there was only the moon and stars to guide our calendar and not today’s computers. We could then look to the full harvest moon and know it was for example Sukkot.

Thus our holidays must be tied to the seasons. And these are of course connected to the solar year. The upcoming holiday of Passover not only celebrates our freedom from Egypt but also the spring barley harvest. Sukkot not only marks the historical claim of wandering in the wilderness, but the fall harvest. While we are no longer farmers each of these holidays must be tied to their corresponding seasons. A lunar year is 354 days long. A solar is 365 days. If not for a leap year, and the addition of this year’s extra month, the holidays would therefore march into the wrong seasons.

We would then be adding the prayer for rain during the heat of Israel’s dry summers. The wisdom of our tradition is to add this prayer not when it would be miraculous and beyond our natural expectations, but instead during the rainy winter season. We pray not for the miracle of rain but rather that the rains will be plentiful and the seasons will continue to follow their prescribed path. (How we could use such prayers these days!)

Rain falls during its expected season, and soon, after our celebrations of Passover, we will let go of this prayer. Still we are left with two weeks of leprosy. The usual double portion is divided. What are we to make of these now lengthened discussions about a disease cured by antibiotics and absent from our experiences. I look anew to the wisdom of our tradition. Even the ancient rabbis spiritualized leprosy’s meaning, arguing that tzaraat—leprosy is not so much about a physical ailment but a spiritual deformity. Leprosy connotes the sin of gossip. To engage in slander deforms the gossiper.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great Jewish moralist, argues:
In the previous parasha, Shemini, the Torah lists the various types of animals and birds that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten (in the laws of keeping kosher). Here, we have the law of tzaraat (leprosy), which according to our Sages afflicts a person who was guilty of lashon hara—slander. The reason for this juxtaposition is because people are more concerned about not eating non-kosher food than they are about “eating up” a person through slander. Thus we learn from the juxtaposition that “eating up” a person is no less a sin than eating a worm.
And we continue to worry more about the food we eat, or the food we wish to eat, or even the foods we are forbidden to eat—whether because of religious stringencies or health sensibilities—rather than the words we say.

Regardless of the season, regardless of the year, this is a teaching worth remembering. There remain diseases of the spirit that can be as disfiguring as those of ancient days.

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