“And the leper in whom the mark is, his garments shall be rent and the hair of his head shall be grown out and he shall cover [his mouth and] his upper lip and he shall cry out: Impure! Impure! All the days that the mark is on him he shall be impure; he is impure; he shall live alone; outside the camp is his dwelling.” (Vayikrah 13:45-46)

The law of the metzora (often translated as a “leper”) constitutes a major part of both this week’s and next week’s Torah portions. The afflicted individual would notice a white or discoloured spot on his or her skin or hair. He or she would then approach a Cohen who would examine the leprous mark. In some instances, the symptoms were not conclusive and the leper would be quarantined for a week. At the end of the week, the Cohen would examine the mark and check to see if there had been any change in size or colour. Occasionally a second week of quarantine was required. However, if the mark had become full-blown tzara’at, the Cohen would pronounce the person impure. In that case, the metzora would have to comply with the laws set out in the verse cited above: he would rend his garments, cover his face, grow his hair and live in isolation outside the city. On his way out of the city he would call, “Impure! Impure!”

The Talmud (Moed Katan 5a) offers two reasons why the metzora calls out, “Impure! Impure!” The first is so that people will know he is a metzora and steer clear of him least he impurify them or their utensils. This is also one of the reasons why we mark a grave – so that cohanim will know that a body is buried close by and keep their distance. Chizkuni (Vayikrah 13:45) makes an interesting comment that is somewhat related to this. He explains that the reason the metzora covers his face is “to stop his foul breath from coming out of his mouth, so that he will not harm others.” This is akin to the face mask that we all wore during the Covid pandemic, so that there would be less chance of spreading the virus. The second reason why the metzora announces his impurity is so that people will pray for his full and speedy recovery.

The Kli Yakar suggests that the phrase “v’tamei tamei yikrah”, “He shall cry out: Impure! Impure!” can be read differently if one changes the punctuation: “And the impure one cries out: Impure!” Let us analyse what he means by this alternate reading. The Sages (Tractate Arachin 16a) stated that tzara’at afflicted people because of seven sins, chief among them being gossip and slander. In fact, the word metzora is seen as a contraction of the phrase motzi shem ra, one who pronounces a libellous claim. One of the proofs that tzara’at is caused by harmful speech is the story of Miriam who said something negative about her brother, Moshe, and was subsequently struck with the affliction (Bamidbar 12). In a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 70a-b), the Sages note that when people speak ill of others, it is because they themselves possess the negative trait they accuse others of having. In psychological terms this a form of projection, the tendency to ascribe to another person feelings, thoughts, or attitudes present in oneself.

Here is the relevant Talmudic passage: “There was a certain man from Nehardea who went into a butcher shop in Pumbedita [two towns in Babylon]. He said to them: “Give me meat.” They said to him: “Wait until the attendant of Rav Yehuda bar Yehezkel takes his meat and then we will give you yours.” He said: “Who is Yehuda bar Sheviskel [a pejorative form of the name] that he should precede me and take before me!” They went and told Rav Yehuda and he placed a ban upon him [for denigrating a Torah scholar, see Rashi from Moed Katan 16a]. They told [him further]: ”He habitually calls people slaves.” Rav Yehuda issued a proclamation that he [the man from Nehardea] was a slave himself. The man summoned Rav Yehuda to a hearing before Rav Nachman. During the course of the hearing, Rav Nachman asked Rav Yehuda why he had issued a proclamation that the man was himself a slave. Rav Yehuda explained: “Because he frequently calls people ‘slaves’ and a Tanna [Sage of the Mishna] taught, “Anyone who declares others to be genealogically unfit [i.e. they possess tainted pedigree] is himself unfit and he never speaks in praise of others.” And [the Sage] Shmuel said [in reference to this teaching], “It is with his own blemish that he declares others unfit.”  During the course of the hearing, the man proudly revealed that he was descended from a certain distinguished family. However, he was hoisted by his own petard because there was an established tradition that the only people who remained from that family were slaves!

We can now understand the Kli Yakar’s alternate reading of the verse, “And the impure one cries out: Impure!” People project their own inadequacies, bigotry, hatred and imperfections onto their victims. They accuse them of the very crimes for which they are complicit. You do not have to search very far to find examples of this. I have always been fascinated by the type of people who deny the Holocaust. As a rule, they are deeply anti-Semitic and they view Jews as fake victims who are attempting to use the Holocaust “myth” as a way of arousing sympathy from others or achieving some nefarious goal. They will tell you that the narrative of the Germans murdering six million Jews is a fiction that could never have been perpetrated in a civilised world. I have no doubt that were they given the opportunity, these Holocaust deniers would gladly perpetrate another genocide on the Jewish people.

And speaking of genocide, let us consider the claims that are being made against the State of Israel since 7 October. I have heard many times that the Israelis “had it coming to them” because they keep the Palestinians in “concentration camps.” Moreover, the IDF are carrying out a “genocide” against the Palestinians in Gaza. The government of South Africa went so far as to open a case of genocide against Israel at the IJC in The Hague. How ironic it is that Israel, who are engaged in a defensive war against Hamas, should be accused of genocide. The irony is that Hamas’ charter makes explicit reference to destroying the State of Israel and Hamas leaders have stated that they would repeat 7 October attacks “time and again until Israel is annihilated.” (Hamas member, Ghazi Hamad, speaking on October 24, 2023). It is only people who have genocidal desires against Jews who accuse the Jews of genocide. Unfortunately, such “projection” has long been the tactic of anti-Semites who accused Jews of a host of crimes for which they themselves were often guilty. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (referenced in the Hamas Charter) first appeared in Russia in 1905. It is a scurrilous forgery that outlines the Jewish plot to rule the world. The Protocols were often published and publicised by regimes that had the very same goal as the one described in the book – world domination. By the same token, Muslims will accuse Israel of colonisation when it is well known that Islam has long sought to colonise the entire Middle East and Europe, if not the whole western world! The sages had incredible insight when they said, “It is with his own blemish that he declares others unfit!”

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/Um04kwoNor8?si=aldA08Wn–6krqGe

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