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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Tazria-Metzora

Updated: May 10, 2020

Parashat Tazria-Metzora

Iyar 1, 5780 – April 25, 2020

Torah Reading: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24; Isaiah 66:23

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual reading of Tazria and Metzora. The most important thing for me to mention to preface this commentary is that, in the discipline of eco-theology, a strong emphasis is placed on the conceptual and semantic relationship between the Hebrew words for human and earth – adam (אדם) and adamah (אדמה). In the creation narrative of Adam HaRishon, or “the first man,” we are told that his body was formed from the earth (min ha-adamah), which is where the name Adam comes from. But what isn’t discussed is that, contained within both of these words, is the Hebrew word for blood – dam (דם). When we’re dealing with blood, we’re also dealing with life, as we read in Deuteronomy 12:23: “for the blood, it is the life.” This is the premise upon which the Torah constructs for us a particular relationship to blood, and – by consequence – to life. This has immediate implications because not only does it indicate that there is life within the human, as is self-evident, but that there is something about the earth that is infused with a similar vitality to that of Adam. The presence of dam in both adam and adamah alludes to this point. But with this suggestion we must also ask: What is dam? What is blood? Or, through dam, what is being shared between the earth and the human? And this is the principle eco-theological question to be explored in the conceptual and semantic relationship between adam and adamah.

The two portions of Tazria and Metzora revolve around the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. This includes a spiritual affliction referred to as tzaraat (or nega tzaraat), which is often mistranslated as ‘leprosy’, but does manifest as a skin condition that presents like leprosy. For this reason, it is sometimes translated as “scaly disease,”[1]although the cause of the affliction may surprise you. The Midrash tells us that “the plague of tzaraat comes only as a punishment for lashon hara (evil talk).”[2] It is a disease that results from slander, or gossip, and can even afflict clothing or the walls of a home.[3] A ‘metzora’ is an individual who has been confirmed to have the disease, and the portion of Parashat Metzora addresses the process of purification an individual – or object – must undergo to be freed from this “scaly disease.” It should make sense, then, how these two portions of Tazria and Metzora are connected: Parashat Tazria addresses the laws of impurity caused by tzaraat, and Parashat Metzora describes the steps that must be taken to eradicate the affliction.[4] But, the topic of ritual purity, in this dual portion, begins with childbirth and the impurities that result from the bleeding during delivery. This may seem a bit strange, for why would one of life’s greatest miracles – the creation of human life – render a woman impure? And why is the phenomenon of childbirth placed, at all, within a discussion about a slanderous disease that afflicts skin, clothing, and the walls of a house? The traditional rabbinic consideration is that with the beginning of life also comes a process of dealing with tumah,[5] the spiritual impurities that hinder the influx of life, vitality, and holiness.[6] In this respect, the dividing line between states that are considered tahor(pure) and states that are considered tamei (impure) are involved with the same line that separates life from death. There is the very basic premise that when one is considered tamei, one is also denied access to holiness; tamei is equated with kelipah (unholiness) and death. This is why seminal discharges in men, and other genital secretions, produce the same impurities associated with menstruation. The spilling of seed, or the presence of menstrual blood, represents the loss of an opportunity to create life – they are both spiritual abstractions that are precipitated by a physical condition associated with death. “According to Torah law, death is the principle cause of all tum’ah; [and] the highest magnitude of tum’ah comes from contact with a corpse.”[7] This is also a principle that is discussed in relation to the kosher laws (which were outlined last week in Parashat Shemini), as we read: “If an animal that you may eat has died, one who touches its carcass shall become contaminated until evening.” (11:39) I bring up kashrut, because like the kosher laws, the laws of tumah v’taharah (the laws of ritual impurity and purity) are also classified as chukim.[8] These are the supra-rational commandments that cannot be explained through logic. For this reason, they are very easy to dismiss as utter nonsense as they cannot appeal to a rational way of thinking; they are difficult commandments to personalize and concretize in the material realm. But I would like to propose an idea that links supra-rational thinking (including purity laws associated with blood) with our care for the earth.

There is a basic Talmudic principle which asserts that irrational thinking leads to sin.[9] By default, I would make the argument that the current state of the world has resulted from the accumulation of actions that are irrational. They are irrational, and they are sinful, because they are actions that threaten life by nullifying the very forces that engender the influx of vitality and holiness. Words like holiness or purity are charged words because they have become associated with tyrannical ideologies that have – for centuries – oppressed people and created divisiveness. But I would like to underline that the purity laws in the Torah are providing a platform for us to search for (and consider) the physical conditions that support life and the physical conditions that threaten life. The language of Torah may use a term like ‘impure’ or ‘impurity’, although this simply refers to conditions that are detached from the source of life – they are void of life, which is why they are associated with death. They become associated with death because they are outside of the presence of G-d’s holiness. And we can think about this principle in relation to purity, blood, and the earth. Take menstrual blood or a seminal discharge, which – when removed from its human vessel – becomes a symbol of death. In fact, it’s quite the opposite when these substances are inside of the human, as they are still unified with their potential to generate life. In that state, they are considered bittul[10] – a spiritual term signifying a physical condition that is regarded as allied with G-d, with holiness, with the highest potential for life. And the same is true for substances within the earth, such as fossil fuels, precious stones, or minerals. When extracted, they too become impure as they are taken from the mediums which provide the opportunity for them to function as instruments of life. Take fossil fuels, for instance, which contain energy. But our use of them can only move their energetic potential in one direction – from purity to impurity and we see this quite literally: it creates a void in the earth with by-products that pollute our environment. But there is a deeper spiritual significance to be gleaned from this idea. The lakes, rivers, streams, and inner caverns of the earth are the veins and arteries of the world; they are the structures which carry this ‘earthblood’: the natural resources, fungal networks, and all of the living things. The blood of the earth is the intelligence of the world – the ecosystems, the trophic levels, and creatures that interact with each other to adapt and change according to the physical environment. To remove them from the earth, is to desecrate the holiness of life, and the blood of the earth is the key to life. This was present in the semantics of the Hebrew long before James Lovelock put forward the “Gaia Hypothesis” in the 1970s.

In (17:14) we read: “for the life of any creature is it’s blood” – and from this verse it is deduced that the soul is “said either to be blood, or be in blood”[11] which is directly associated with the lowest aspect of the soul: the nefesh. This is one of the reasons why Parashat Tazria begins with childbirth, as it concerns the creation of a human being and the introduction of a new soul into the material world. In Genesis 2:7 we read: “And G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.” The Hebrew word nefesh is derived from the term nafash, meaning “to rest,” and so nefesh is considered the “resting soul.”[12] The soul of life that is blown into Adam’s nostrils settles in the body, and comes to rest in the blood. This aspect of the soul, the nefesh, is the very same soul of life that that is shared with the earth – and this is important to keep in mind, as through the nefesh, there is a condition of life that is shared between (and unified by) the blood of the human and the blood of the earth. When we’re dealing with life we’re also dealing with its container – that being the earth and the human body. To defile the earth is also to defile the aspect of our soul that we share with the earth: the nefesh. When we can’t understand this relationship logically, or sense this connection physically, the laws of chukim can provide some insight into this disassociation. I had mentioned that there is a Talmudic principle which relates irrationality with sin. That same principle asserts that “the antithesis of irrational thinking which leads to sin is supra-rational thinking.”[13] The idea here is that irrationality is not healed with logic; the laws of chukim are designed to counteract varieties of human action that fail to heed to logic. And in order to heal that irrationality, we must engage forms of action that exist in a realm beyond logic. That premise is as true now as it has ever been. The material world has become contaminated through actions that are destroying life. And, so the world needs religion – a healthy, sustainable demonstration of religion. Because we need to interface with that unexplainable, supra-rational, incomprehensible realm of laws that uplifts the human soul. If we are to purify the material world, we must also engage with varieties of healing which transcend reason. It may only be the way out of this ecological mess, logically.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The Hebrew word for blood (dam) in both Adam (the first human) and adamah (earth), the eco-theological relationship between human blood and the blood of the earth, and how the laws of chukim can help us rethink material healing


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.637 [2] Midrash Rabbah; Talmud; Rashi [3] [4] For an individual, this involves dwelling alone outside of the camp (for a period of time) until they are healed. Clothing, or the walls of a home, must also be disassembled and separated, and in the instance that the tzaraat re-appears, the items must be destroyed. [5] The laws of ritual purity are classified as chukim, the category of supra-rational commandments that cannot be explained through logic – as are the laws of kashrut explained last week. [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.608 [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] Reichman, An Introduction to Chasidic Thought, p.87 [13]

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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