Tazria Metzora - Parsha Politics: Why Tza-ra’at is not Leprosy

When Miriam Hit the Stained Glass Ceiling

A condition called Tza-ra’at appears frequently in the Torah and occurs prominently in this section. We’ve seen the term previously: Magically coming and going upon Moses’ hand to convince Pharaoh; as a symptom manifested by Miriam which leads to Moses’ famous prayer for her healing (ana el na r’fa na la); and in our reading it even is used to described a substance growing or appearing on houses, garments, hair and beards. The priests are responsible for conducting physical examinations to determine its presence upon themselves, a worshiper or temple worker. If found and until it dissipates increments of seven day quarantine will result.

Erroneously, Tza-ra’at was rendered as “leprosy” when the Bible was translated from Greek into English.[1] Lepros/lepra is Greek for  any kind of skin reaction or condition in Greek, whereas Elephantiasis was the Greek term in its time for leprosy. Even more striking is that Hanson’s Disease, a.k.a. leprosy, bears no common manifestations with those listed in the Torah and, in fact, anthropologists and epidemiologists maintain that leprosy did not appear until the times of the Greeks.

To learn more about why Tza-ra’at is important, let’s look at two major instances from outside this week’s reading. In Second Chronicles 26:19-23 we find the Israelite King Uzziah manifesting this disorder when he loses his career in a showdown with the priesthood.

The text is cited here in full for your convenience:

16 And when he became strong his heart became haughty until he became corrupt and he trespassed against the Lord his God and he came into the Temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. 17 And Azariah the priest came after him and with him were priests of the Lord, eighty mighty men.18 And they stood beside Uzziah the king and said to him:

"It is not for you, Uzziah to burn incense to the Lord but for the priests, sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn [incense]. Leave the Sanctuary, for you have trespassed, and it will not be glory for you from the Lord God."

19 And Uzziah became furious and in his hand was a censer to burn and in his fury with the priests the tza-ra’at shone upon his forehead before the priests in the House of the Lord over the altar of incense. 20 And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests turned to him and behold he was stricken with tza-ra’at on his forehead so they rushed him out of there and he too hastened to leave for the Lord had smitten him.

21 And King Uzziah was stricken with tza-ra’at until the day of his death and he lived in a house of retirement for it had been decreed from the House of the Lord and Jotham his son was over the king’s house he judged the people of the land.

22 And the rest of the events of Uzziah both the earlier ones and the later ones Isaiah the son of Amoz the prophet inscribed. 23 And Uzziah slept with his forefathers and they buried him with his forefathers in the cemetery of the kings for they said "He is a metzora.'"[2]

Hmm. So it takes a contingent of eighty priests to knock Uzziah out of taking over the temple rites. In the process he manifests tza-ra’at and lives out his life in a beit hofshee-ut, a freedom house, translated by some as a “house of retirement.” Or perhaps, I suggest we ask, is this a metaphor for house arrest or containment in an asylum or sanatorium?” What is this physical phenomenon as he loses the power play? Does it happen today? What causes a person to be labeled a metzora?

An episode from the life of Miriam the prophetess can illuminate our study. Miriam develops tza-ra’at when she and Aaron become concerned about Moses’ relationship with a Cushite woman. (The text does not specify more about the Cushite woman and the sages speculate it is a second wife, or wife subsequent to a divorce from Tzipora. Or, perhaps it was Clinton/Lewinsky scenario.) Whatever the precise cause, Miriam is depicted as being reprimanded by God for expressing her concern and her manifestation of tza-ra-at is viewed by the sages as her punishment. God’s reaction is analogized to that of a father spitting in his daughter’s face and Miriam is sent outside the camp for the standard seven days that will come to be associated in this week’s reading as the proper response to the appearance of Tza-ra’at.

Here is the text:

Numbers: 12

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. 2 They said: "Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?" And the Lord heard.

3 Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth. 4 The Lord suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, "Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!" And all three went out. 5 The Lord descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tent. He called to Aaron and Miriam, and they both went out.

6 He said' "Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision, I will speak to him in a dream. 7 Not so is My servant Moses, he is faithful throughout My house. 8 With him I speak mouth to mouth in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?

9 The wrath of the Lord flared against them and He left. 10 The cloud departed from above the Tent, and behold, Miriam was afflicted with tza-ra’at like snow. Then Aaron turned to Miriam and behold, she was afflicted with tza-ra’at. 11 Aaron said to Moses, "Please, master do not put sin upon us for acting foolishly and for sinning. 12 Let her not be like the dead, which comes out of his mother’s womb with half his flesh consumed!"

13 Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "I beseech you, God, please heal her." 14 The Lord replied to Moses, "If her father were to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days? She shall be confined for seven days outside the camp, and afterwards she may enter. 15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had entered.

So Miriam hit the stained glass ceiling. She is depicted as being called out by God for her chutzpah, told that she does not receive direct revelation like Moses does. She may have thought herself an equal leader with Moses and Aaron as, indeed, even the prophet Micah shared her understanding:
Micah 6:4 “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery and I sent before you Moses Aaron and Miriam.”

It is from this text that the mistranslation of Tza-ra’at as leprosy has had dual tragic effects. It is from here that fundamentalists of all stripes cite to prove that disease is punishment by God. Although leprosy is actually minimally contagious, lepers became shunned and isolated as punishment enacted not only by “God” but also by society. This text is used frequently even today to make outcasts of those with AIDS by judging it to be punishment by God.

Colonial American court records and sermons contain citations of this same Miriam text. There it is used to justify the domination of women by men; to put power for women outside the camp of possibility. What do these stories of tza-ra’at concerning Uzziah and Miriam have in common? Priestly politics.

In the situation of Miriam, even Rashi acknowledges that she did not mean to defame Moses in any way, so why the harsh treatment? From our vantage point we can see that it is her career as a leader that is stillborn in the hands of the patriarchy. Miriam will be moved out of the triumvirate of leadership and Aaron will be promoted to serve as the high priest. Uzziah’s move for the monarchy to overtake the temple rights is ended by “eighty strong priests.” Scholars attribute editorial intervention in specific passages of the Torah to “P”, the priesthood. P passages often add Aaron or the priesthood into situations where they need not necessarily have. Indeed it is usually the victors who record history. Vis-à-vis Uzziah, the priests succeed in aborting his career in full, as well.

So what then, might the metaphor of Tza-ra’at be? Is there a penimi, an “inside” lining of spiritual meaning to this dreaded problem? To find the answer, please consider what happens physiologically when a person is horribly disappointed, profoundly shamed and frightened by the outcome of their action. Do not often the symptoms of dispirited devastation break through the body? These manifest as pallor, hives, skyrocketing blood pressure, back pain, irritable bowl; we all have our target organs for trauma and losses. In Victorian times fainting was a common response to severe stress; in the Torah, we find Tza’ra’at.

In our times, how often do we go to the high priests of medicine, physicians, only to have psychosomatic symptoms derived from work site or societal stresses given short shrift when it comes to the creation of a care plan? This week’s reading implies a serious prescription: Examine for severity, then, where indicated take time off, cool down, find a new perspective, regroup equanimity and when sufficiently healed, return to the village of life.

This article is being written during a trip to South Africa. Today’s paper here in the village of Kommicje reports on the life cycle of the stunning national flower called the Protea: “When fertilization of the florets has been effected the containing brackets close up and then seeds are held and protected from predators by a woody cone. The process of regeneration is dependent upon forest fire to supply sudden heat which will cause the woody seed head to open and spill its contents on the ground. Not all will be lost to the fire. Ants will be attracted to the protein covering on the seeds and carry them underground where they will germinate from winter rains.”

The temple cult is gone and today women increasingly serve as equals and leaders. Perhaps the retreat of Uzziah and Miriam allowed the spirit of their enterprise to live on past the forest fire of their experience, so that it might be cultivated over the generations, ultimately to flower again through us. Perhaps this study also guides us to prepare a mi-schebeirakh, a blessing for those needing healing from political wounds and misguided uses of power. We might also bless the high priests of our times, good friends, capable teachers, and skillful healing professionals who can know when to advise us to go on retreat from professional stresses. May we also be blessed to recognize the importance of taking time to heal and to do so with deep trust in the regenerative processes of creation.

[1] Gail (Goldie) Milgram-Beitman, “‘Sara’at,’ Leprosy” (Leviticus 13) - A Review of the Literature,” Koroth, Vol. 9 No. 11-12, 1991. Published by the Department of History of Medicine, Hebrew University.

[2] JP Tanakh CD Rom Translation.