Leviticus The 50 Year Itch (Parshat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33)
Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson
Amidst all the unfamiliar and gross-sounding skin conditions described in this week’s parshah, one jumps out with surprising, blaring familiarity: Shechin. “When the flesh has shechin in the skin and is healed…” (Lev. 13:18)
Shechin is the sixth plague that God brought upon the Egyptians. Some of us dip our pinkies in our cups at the seder table each year, removing drops of wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues specifically between “dever” (cattle disease) and “barad” (hail) in recollection of the sixth plague’s horror. It was shechin that struck the Egyptian magicians so hard they could not stand before Moses (Exodus 9:12) Shechin was one symptom of the illness that nearly killed the righteous King Hezekiah, until he repented and was cured (II Kings 20:7).
Clearly, shechin is more than just a little rash.
These three instances of shechin (which appears in only two other places in the Hebrew Bible) offer us a sort of schema of theodicy—that is, three possible theologies of why bad things happen to us.
Sometimes, as in Exodus, bad things are clearly a sign from God. The Egyptians—or Phara’oh at least—had all the opportunities in the world to let the Israelites go, but they didn’t. Eventually, their choices caught up with them.
Other times, as in this week’s parshah, bad things happen for no reason at all. While the rabbis of the Talmud love to teach that tzara’at (another skin condition, often inaccurately translated as leprosy) was a punishment for ill speech, the plain meaning of the Torah implies that it just happens, like catching a cold. There is a decontamination procedure to follow, just as a NICU nurse wouldn’t report for work while sick, but in the Torah itself, there is no judgment attached to tzara’at, nor to shechin.
Then there are cases like Hezekiah’s. As King of Jerusalem, he had just survived a siege by the invading Assyrians. All seemed well. But in the next verse, “In those days, Hezekiah was sick unto death. Isaiah the prophet, son of Amotz, came to him and said, ‘Thus says the Eternal: Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’” (II Kings 20:1) It seems like this is too big to come out of nowhere, but no specific cause is evident.
And so the rabbis’ midrashic imagination goes to work: They describe how Hezekiah refused to marry and have children, because he had foreseen that his children would be sinful, and so God punished him. (Berachot 10a) with shechin. In our own lives, when things like this happen without reason and we find ourselves in a situation that feels wrong, we start to cast around to understand why it happened.
Now, the God I believe in doesn’t punish us actively for our sins. But our misdeeds do have a way of catching up with us. As human beings, we’re incapable of always doing the right thing. What interests me from an ethical standpoint is when and how we go astray.
Sometimes, like the Egyptians, we have every opportunity to do the right thing, and still we don’t. Other times, we find ourselves backed into a corner and have no choice at all—which might be equivalent to the shechin in our parshah, which simply happened no matter how good or bad you were. And sometimes, like Hezekiah, we find ourselves having to make the best of the available choices, from among a constrained set of poor options.
As we prepare to read Parshat Tazria-Metzora this week, we find ourselves between Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the two-day combo of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut—Israel’s Memorial Day, which then as the sun sets turns from somber mourning to the gleeful celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. The state’s whole history is encapsulated in this one week. As we look back on that history, we know that there have been both great moments and lousy ones.
And how else could it be? A state is a human endeavor, run by fallible human beings. The real question, as we contend with the realities of today, is into what categories Israel’s missteps fall. Our greatest critics will say that Israel has consistently and intentionally done wrong, earning us the shechin of Egypt. Our most right-wing defenders, if they acknowledge wrongdoing at all, will say it was always the shechin of Leviticus—that Israel never had any real choice. The truth, I believe, is a combination of the three contexts for choice we’ve examined here, including—and probably with a preponderance of—that of Hezekiah’s constrained choices.
The most glaring of those choices is the ongoing occupation of several million Palestinians, which former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said recently is the only real existential threat to Israel. In one month, we will be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, of the return of Jewish sovereignty over and access to our holiest sites—and of the occupation. These are part of a multifaceted reality that Israel—and American Jewry—must grapple with.
As a tool to aid in this grappling, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has undertaken the Yovel Project, using the Torah’s commandment of an every-fifty-years jubilee as a lens through which to discuss the present reality. The hope is that, by approaching the topic spiritually through Torah study, we can get ourselves “unstuck” from our entrenched positions and help us think about our condition in a different way. Improving the intracommunal dialogue here in the US won’t solve the problem in Israel all by itself, but it is one crucial element of addressing it.
Returning to the verse with which we began: The Talmud offers an important lesson that applies here: “Rabbi Zeira taught: The Torah says ‘and is healed’ specifically about bassar (flesh), not adam (human)” (Sotah 5a). The pre-eminent commentator Rashi elaborates: “One who makes herself soft and supple like flesh will be healed, but one who makes himself hard as adamah, unyielding earth, will not be healed.”
Both on the grand stage of international affairs and on the small stage of our interpersonal and communal discussions about Israel, if we make ourselves rigid like rock, we will be fragile and prone to snapping and shattering. If we allow ourselves to be flexible, we stand the best chance of achieving long-term health for ourselves and for all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Education at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He holds rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and a BA in Geology from Brown University. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and children.