The Importance of Having Ways to Reintegrate to the Community
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah, Parashat Metzora, deals mainly with the rules concerning Tzaraat, leprosy, and describes the ritual of purifying and reintegrating the person who was ill with that disease back into the society.
A Metzora is the person afflicted with a condition that the Torah calls Nega Tzaraat. A priest declares the affected person impure, and the Metzora must be isolated outside of the Israelite camp (Vayikra 13:46).
Many commentators suggest to translate “Nega Tzaraat” as leprosy. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understood this phenomenon in a different way which I will explain during this message.
Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) was a German Orthodox rabbi best known as the intellectual founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz (“the way of the world”) school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Occasionally termed neo-Orthodoxy, his philosophy, together with that of Azriel Hildesheimer, has had a considerable influence on the development of Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Hirsch relates the affection of Tzaraat to “an inner rot that breaks out externally.” In this case, the spiritual state is rotten. The” nega” shows that there is a problem. Rabbi Hirsch limits the problem with a social wrongdoing like “having haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises thoughts of violence, feet that are quick to run to evil, a false witness who spreads lies, and one who incites conflict between brothers.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that doing these things leads to the individual’s confinement outside the community. This period of exile has the purpose to “instill in the affected person the awareness of their unworthiness, to recognize their guilt and to begin the process of restoration and repentance.”
This week’s parashah not only describes the rules related to the affected person of Metzora but also provides the ways to repair his or her actions and reenter to the community. There are rituals of reintegration that the affected had to complete in order to rejoin the society.
The Torah sets three steps:
1) The taking of two pure birds
2) The shaving off of all of the Metzora hair
3) The offering of two sheep and a yearling ewe (Vayikra 14:4-10)
These rituals allowed the person afflicted with Metzora to reenter the social real of the community and the participation of religious life.
Rabbi Hirsch finds symbolic meanings in each of the rituals of reintegration.
In the case of the ritual of the birds, Rabbi Hirsch, citing the Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 106b), explains that the Torah is referring to birds that cannot be tamed or domesticated. These two birds represent the most basic animal instinct. With this ritual, the affected person recognized that he or she behaved following his or her basic animal instinct instead of having moral and ethical human values. Through this ritual, that person shows his or her commitment to human morality.
The ritual of shaving off all the metzora’s hair occurs twice: on the first day and on the seventh day. Human hair serves to protect the body and shield it from the outside world. Hair represents the barriers that a person might build in order to live a self-centered, antisocial life. According to Rabbi Hirsch, shaving is a symbolic way to make the person reflect on his or her actions against the society.
After the seventh day, the community allows the metzora to return. There is a possibility to be forgiven and reintegrate to the society.
On the eighth day, the individual seeing reinstatement to religious life offers two male sheep. Rabbi Hirsch explains that “in their arrogance they forgot God; they imagined that their fate was in their own hands.” These sacrifices atone for the person’s arrogance and represent the individual’s renewed commitment to being shepherded by God.
We may affirm that the three rituals described in the Torah to reenter the community are focused on repairing three aspects of our lives. The first one is focused on ourselves. The purpose here is to reflect on our actions and try to change them. The second ritual is focused on the repairing of our relationship with the community, and the third one, on the repairing of our relationship with God.
We no longer rely on sacrificial rituals to make amends for our moral wrongdoings. However, the symbolic meaning and message of these rituals taught by Rabbi Hirsch can teach us good lessons to apply in our own lives. Specially, the importance of having ways to reflect, be aware, repent, repair our relationships with the society and God, and reintegrate to the community.