This week’s Torah portion describes the purification of a recovered metzora, or leper, by the priest through a specific procedure involving two birds, spring water stored in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread, and a bundle of hyssop. Tzaraat, biblical leprosy, can also afflict a house, which is identified by dark red or green patches on its walls. The priest determines whether the house can be purified or if it must be destroyed, which can take up to nineteen days. The portion concludes by outlining the laws for someone who experiences an impure bodily discharge.
Purification Process Following Tzaraat
Since tzaraat renders one ritually impure, the Torah next describes the process by which the afflicted becomes purified. It is a three-stage process.
First, the priest must determine that the physical manifestations of the affliction are gone. The priest then slaughters a clean bird and takes a second clean bird, a crimson thread and a sprig of hyssop and dips them in the blood of the first blood, sprinkling it on the contaminated individual. The bird is then set free and the person must immerse his clothing in water, shave his head, then immerse himself. He may then return to the camp, but cannot enter his own dwelling.
The next stage takes place seven days later. Again the person shaves all his hair, immerses himself and his clothing.
The final step, on the eighth day, involves offering two unblemished lambs and an unblemished ewe, flour and oil. These serve as guilt, sin, burnt and meal offerings which provide atonement for the former leper. If the individual cannot afford these animals, however, he is permitted to bring just one lamb, less flour and two pigeons or turtledoves for his offerings. The priest performs specific rituals with these offerings to purify the formerly afflicted individual.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the purification process for tzaraat is so complex and so costly?
Tzaraat of the House
While tzaraat can affect people and garments even in the desert, the Torah tells us when the people arrive in the Promised Land, houses could be afflicted, too. The homeowner who suspects his house is affected must call the priest to examine the dwelling. The priest instructs the owner to remove everything from the house before examining it for tzaraat. Anything left inside a house which is declared contaminated becomes contaminated, as well. A problematic mark appears as a red or green depression in the wall. The priest then quarantines the home for a week, and returns to check if the affliction has spread. If it has, the affected stones must be removed from the house and placed outside the city. The house is then scraped down and replastered. If the affliction reappears, the entire house must be destroyed.
The purification process for the house, if it is not necessary to destroy it, is similar to that of the person: a bird is slaughtered, then a second bird, along with a scarlet thread and sprig of hyssop, is dipped in the blood of the slaughtered bird and fresh water. The blood and water are sprinkled on the house and the living bird is set free.
As the Israel Bible points out, the fact that tzaraat affects homes only while the Jewish people live in the Holy Land shows that the stakes are so much higher in Israel. One’s actions there have greater significance and spiritual impact than anywhere else in the world. Tzaraat of the house only existed from the time the people entered the Promised Land with Joshua until the destruction of the Temple.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God allows the homeowner to remove his belongings from the house prior to the priest’s examination? What can we learn from this about the nature of tzaraat? About God? About people?
This chapter outlines the various bodily discharges a person may experience which render them impure. Not only is the person who experiences the discharge affected, but also anyone who touches him or her or anything the affected person has come in contact with. Those contaminated by contact, however, are impure to a lesser degree, requiring only immersion and waiting till evening to be purified.
Routine discharges require immersion but not a sacrifice. A man who experiences a seminal discharge, and the woman with whom he is intimate at the time, is contaminated until that evening. Both must immerse in water to become purified. A menstruating woman is contaminated for seven days before she may immerse. She may not be intimate with a man during this time, but if she is, the man, too, is contaminated for seven days.
Unusual discharges have more serious purification requirements. Anyone, man or woman, who experiences an unusual discharge becomes impure, and anything he or she touches becomes contaminated. He or she must wait seven days after the discharge ceases to immerse himself or herself and his or her garments in water. On the eighth day, he or she brings two pigeons or turtledoves as a sin offering and burnt offering respectively.
As the Israel Bible points out, it is no coincidence that immersion in water is required in the purification process. As the source of life, it is appropriate that water be a part of this spiritual renewal and rebirth. As well, water’s fluid nature reminds us that our spiritual state is not fixed, either. Rather, each of us has ups and downs, and there is always room for growth.