CONTAMINATED! – Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Some tribal societies have medicine men who treat physical ailments with mystery cures. Ancient Israel left that function to the cohanim, the priests, Aaron and his descendants. The Book of Leviticus prescribes the treatments in three of the less pleasant chapters in the Torah. Most of these treatments involve declaring the patient to be taMEY – contaminated. That condition could last for a day, or could go on for months. Sometimes that condition just meant that the patient could not enter the sanctuary and was prevented from eating sacrificial meat. The most dreaded of diseases was leprosy, and its treatment is the most extreme. One device used is familiar to us today as quarantine. The leper had to pitch his tent outside the main camp, must wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose, cover his upper lip and cry out taMEY taMEY – “Contaminated, contaminated!” — thus warning people to stay away from him.
Surprisingly enough, this entire section starts with a law that is not about disease, but about childbirth. When a woman conceives and bears a son, we are told, she is considered to be contaminated by the blood she has shed. This condition lasts one week, the same length as her menstruation. Then she takes a ritual bath, and by most rabbinical opinions she can and should resume relations with her husband. But she is not to enter the sanctuary for another 33 days, after which she brings an offering to the sanctuary and the cohen declares her pure. When the baby is a girl, the length of her contamination is doubled – 14 days before the bath and 66 days thereafter. Theories about this difference are varied, but it would seem to place special importance on the birth of a female who will grow up to experience the monthly cycle, and some day may also bear a new life.
So how do we move from the joy of new life to the plague of leprosy? Contamination – tum’ah — is the key word. It can affect the healthy mother, or the suffering patient. It can even afflict the house we live in and the clothes we wear. While the Torah’s remedies have no obvious connection to modern science, we get the definite message that sometimes we cause our own contamination. In fact, the rabbis note, the word for a leper – metzora – is a contraction of the words motzi shem ra, which means “bringing out a bad name,” that is, slander.
Whether it starts as thoughtless gossip or as deliberate character assassination, loshon hora – the evil tongue – contaminates our lives. No cohen and no medicine man can cure it. It was the great Maimonides who wrote that the evil tongue destroys three people: the one who spreads the bad report, the one who is the subject of it, and the one who listens to it. The only antidote is prevention. If we fail to prevent it, if we participate, we might do well to cover our upper lip and cry “Contaminated!”
Throughout this week’s reading we learn how the cohen must examine the patient, or the clothing or the house, and if he finds the plague cleaned up, he pronounces the verdict tahor – “pure.” So let it be said of us.