Life Is Worth Living – Metzora 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

The identification of the disease and its purification ceremonies described in chapters 13 and 14 of the book of Leviticus remain controversial. Dr. Julius Preuss, a nineteenth century German physician and scholar of considerable renown, considers the explanations extant in his day and concludes that none are satisfactory. In fact, he freely admits that “I do not understand numerous details” (Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, trans. Fred Rosner, p. 323) and adds “I even believe that the explanations of some of these details is impossible to elucidate” (ibid.). Nevertheless, he settles on identifying the skin disease described by the text as leprosy. In his more recent commentary on the book of Leviticus, Prof. Jacob Milgrom prefers the term “scale disease” (Leviticus, p.133). It is unlikely that the controversy will be resolved any time soon. But that does not prevent readers from gaining particular insights that transcend the scientific or dermatological issues.

For example, focusing on the specific rituals of purification, the text requires elements “connotive of life,” as Milgrom puts it (p. 134). The priest was to employ “live (wild) birds (Leviticus 14:4),” “live (spring) water (Leviticus 14:5),” as well as two other elements – red cedar and crimson yarn (Leviticus 14:4) – whose color resembles blood, the symbol for life. While Milgrom confesses that the origin of the ritual of purification might have been a familiar pagan rite, it is all but eviscerated by scriptural transmutation. The ceremony was no longer intended to fend off demonic forces but to affirm life in the presence of death.

In a real way, all of life is a battle of life over death. From the moment of birth when a creature first arrives in this world it begins a process of dying. Without interference, all creatures move towards their eventual demise. Sometimes, by virtue of disease or predators, a creature’s demise is premature. It is into this world that humanity is thrust. But rather than dejectedly conclude that since death is inevitable life is meaningless, humanity, in its fight against death, can make a stand against it. By so doing, we invest life with purpose and meaning, leaving behind a worthy legacy even when our battle is ultimately lost. This is the world view adopted by the Torah and embedded in the ceremony of purification.

Hence, whatever the nature of the disease the text describes, the purification ceremony stands against it as life-affirming. The ceremony serves to return the afflicted from isolation, reinstate the afflicted with their families, and reconcile the afflicted with God. The larger message for moderns is that Judaism itself is life-affirming. It does not see life nihilistically nor does Judaism see the world as inherently evil. Life is indeed worth living.

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Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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