Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Days of Remembrance

The last days of Pesach are the first days of the history of the Jewish people. The Seventh Day, although not accorded the status of a separate Chag, is traditionally the day of Kriat Yam Suf - the splitting of the sea - the day on which we actually left Mizraim.

One of the distinguishing differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic haggadot is the phrase "... lir'ot et atzmo..." - "to view oneself" (Ashkenazic version) and "leha'rot et atzmo" - "to show oneself" (Sephardic version). The context is our own identification with Yetziat Mizraim - the Coming Out Of Egypt. As with so much else that appears contradictory within the two great mainstream traditions - let us not forget the Yemenite, the Italian, the Indian, the Ethiopian and other ancient Jewish traditions: if you think it's tough being Sephardi, at least the Rabbanut didn't make you get circumcised (twice) and go to mikveh (twice) before you were allowed to do your compulsory military service! - the two versions of the text are complementary, rather than at odds with ne another. Internally, we must view ourselves as though each of us personally had been redeemed. This is the answer ba'avur ze 'asa H' li betzeiti mimizraim - this is because of what G-d did for me when G-d brought me out of Egypt.

But that is not enough. We must also identify ourselves with Klal Israel - the community of Israel - and this identification must be public, must be for both the other Jews, and for the Nations of the world to see. Because 'am Israel , the people of Israel, is a phenomenon that transcends national, ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries. And in order to carry out the ultimate mission of the Jewish People, we must be visible to the world.

Immediately after the final days of Pesach, we have the observance of Yom HaShoa - Holucaust Remembrance Day. The following week comes Yom HaZikaron, on which day we remember those who fall in the wars for the State of Israel. Over the years, some have criticized the notion of these days. The argument generally holds that Tisha Be'Av is the catch-all day on which tragedies are recalled, and that, the establishment of the State of Israel being of questionable validity in light of rabbinic tradition, it is best to continue to subsume future tragedies with our past.

Perhaps a more gentle way of putting it would be to say that we have suffered enough tragedy, and we do not need to add days of sorrow. We are now in the midst of the 'Omer, a seven-week period of mourning (different traditions observe different portions, while some observe the entire seven weeks); later this summer we will observe the fasts surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. Haven't we suffered enough?

But for those of us who will light memorial lamps on the last days of Pesach, who will recite the Yizkor prayer, in which our departed loved ones will be invoked by name, is it also correct to say that each one of these should not be remembered? For this is our notion of immortality. For Jews, the dead are always with us. Indeed, many of them are not dead. Talmudic discourse is frequently couched in present tense - even as Amoraim argue with Tannaim across centuries.

There is a famous story of Rabbi Soleveichik as a young boy. Every Friday night his father and grandfather and uncles would gather at the shabbos table and discuss Torah. The discussion generally turned into a passionate discussion of what the Rambam's words meant. One Friday night in particular, the Brisker was arguing vehemently that der Rambam sogt azoy! - "The Rambam says so-and-so!" The arguing appeared on the verge of getting out of hand. The youngster turned to his mother and asked Mama, far vos shreien zey azoy? Lomir gehen fregen dem Rambam vos azoy er meynt! "Mama, why are they shouting like that? Let's go and ask the Rambam himself what it is he means." His mother stroked his head and said, Zissele, der Rambam lebt shoyn nit mehr. "Sweetheart, the Rambam is no longer alive." Imagine the shock to a young child who has heard this man's name mentioned with reverence, his words discussed always in present tense.

But this is how we are. It is part of the amazing legacy of Torah. We schlep our dead along with us. It is one of the greatnesses of the Jewish people. Our loved ones do not die - they live on ins us, in our children, even in generations that we shall never live to see.

There is a story told of the Jewish community in Shanghai during WWII. There came a time when a small number of visas were procured for the United States. The debate was joined in earnest among the rabbis: who should the visas go to? The Roshei Yeshiva were remaining behind with their talmidim - and many others refused to go, in order not to forsake their Rov. Is this any different from parents who followed their children to the gas chambers, to lessen even by one "Amen" the terror and pain of those last hours?

Finally, it was decided that Rav Aharon Kotler z'l should decide who would get the visas. Rav Aharon said: it is not to the greatest Talmidei Chachamim, not to the greatest Tzaddikm that these precious visas should go. Rather, he asked, what kind of leadership does American Jewry need?

This coming Shabbat morning, BS"D, with the rising of the sun, we shall commemorate Moshe's leading us out of Mizraim. There is a beautiful Sephardic custom to pray shacharit on the last dayof Pesach to time the singing of the Shirah Shel Yam to coincide with the rising of the sun - the exact moment at which the sea split.

Fast forward to the end of Deuteronomy - Sefer Devarim. Why is Moshe so reluctant to die? There is much in the midrash about the tricks and the begging and the tears and the pleading and negotiating between Moshe and G-d, with Moshe begging to be permitted to live one more day, to be permitted to lead the people into the Land. And it is always taken as Moshe's stubborn fighting against his fate.

But could it be that Moshe was truly an Adam Gadol? Perhaps, just perhaps, Moshe was afraid that, without him, the People of Israel would feel abandoned. It had happened before - the Golden Calf was created because the people counted the days wrong and expected Moshe to return from the mountaintop on the 39th day, rather than the fortieth.

Maybe Moshe was trying to complete his mission - to bring the People into the Land. Moshe did not lack faith - it was not that he believed the People would abandon G-d after his death - chas veshalom - rather, it is the amazing courage of a true leader of his people, of a true lover of 'Am Israel, who says: "Let me live long enough to hold my child's hand as she walks into the gas chamber."

Let us taste the flat, dry bread of Freedom. The Gemara tells us that we break the middle matzoh so that we may truly eat Lachm 'Anya - Bread of Poverty; that, like the poor who can not afford whole loaves, we too will share in this meager fare. But the Gemera also tells us it is a mitzvah to bring the poor to eat at our Pesach table.

How do we accompany our brothers and sisters in their hour of need? When they need guidance - perhaps just that last hundred yards to cross the Jordan - how do we come to their aid?

Let us remember all those who have been Jews before we were born, who struggled with what it means to be alive, to be Jewish, to be human. Let us not judge those who, in retrospect, seem weak, for we can never know what was in their hearts. But let us draw the courage from the Torah and its way of life, and from the whole history of our People, to move forward and continue to build a better world, a fitting house for G-d.

Sometimes the task at hand is not to strike out in new directions. For most of us, it is a daunting enough challenge to try to walk in the footprints of those who have preceded us.

Yours for a better world.

The ge'ula is before us at every moment.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Acharei Mot - The Wicked Child


Chazal often draw the analogy between Chametz and the Yetzer HaRa' - the Evil Inclination that draws us away from G-d. This is why we have to obliterate it at Pesach - so that we can be fully open to the Matzot / Mitzvot (identical spelling in Hebrew).

What does Chametz do? It makes the dough rise. It makes a loaf of bread, in essence, bigger than itself. Makes the dough spill over its own borders and expand. And in expanding, it becomes transformed into something else.

One way of viewing the Chametz is, that it is the common human desire to do more, to add. The human penchat for getting carried away with things, swept along in the grip of the emotions of the moment.

Like Nadav and Avihu, for whom this Parasha is named, although they do not really play a role in it.

But G-d addresses Moshe after the death of the sons of Aharon and, in this Parashah, gives the laws of Kippur. One thing we must notice is the high degree of ritualization of the 'Avodah - the Service - of Kippur. And this is reinforced in chapter 17, starting at verse 3, which states that it is not permitted to bring sacrificial offerings anywhere but in front of the Mishkan, in its designated place.

The "sin" of Nadav and Avihu was that by bringing their own spontaneous offering, they actually separated themselves from 'Am Israel - in many contexts, the gravest sin of all. Equally, those who bring offerings outside of the Camp, away from the Mishkan, are separating themselves from Torah and from the People of Torah. There is a delicate balance to be struck: between carrying out all the requirements of the law, and not adding to the requirements of the law. Another way of looking at this is to state that Kavanah ("spiritual feeling, intention, focus") does not replace Halachah.

Chapter 16, verse 3: "With this [Hebrew: "zot"] Aharon shall cometo the Mishkan..." The Midrash says: "zot" refers to a long list of mitzvot, including: Shabbat, Brit Milah, Ma'aser and Terumah, animal sacrifices, and more. "With this" - as it were, bearing the mitzvot before him, "shall Aharon enter the Mishkan." And it is "zot" - this litany of mitzvot - that protects Aharon, rather than the garments he wears, rather than the 'Avodah he performs once inside.

It is the mitzvot themselves. Not their simulacrum, not the Kavana empty of the act. Nor should it be the act, devoid of kavana. Although the Torah, and the Rabbis, clearly require the act to be carried out, even if the one performing the act does not "feel" it. This leads to derision from people who ask why we bother observing mitzvot like tefilin, tzitzit, certain aspects of kashrut, ("in those days, before antibiotics and refrigeration, it was dangerous to eat shellfish..."], and for that matter, shabbat and yom tov. For many Jews, even Yom HaKippurim.

The other side of the coin is that a society can only be maintained if people do act according to expectation, even if they don't always feel like it.

It is a mitzvah to have fair and uniform weights and measures for purposes of trade. It is a mitzvah to help poor people to reestablish themselves as self-sufficient, contributing members of society. It is a mitzvah to protect people - all people, Jew and non-Jew alike - from persecution.

On the most fundamental level, we do not trade mitzvot like greenhouse gas emission permits. G-d expects us to keep shabbat. G-d expects us to keep kosher. G-d expects us to wave the lulav, to not wear shatnez, to sit in a sukkah, to fast on Kippur. G-d also - and equally - expects us to come to the aid of the poor, the needy, the sick, the downtrodden. And we must keep shabbat, not for ourselves, but for all of Klal Israel - the community of Israel. And we likewise keep the mitzvot of social justice for the sake of Klal Israel. The Torah does not instruct us to pick and choose. For there is no separating them.

In many respects, the entire seder night is about the Rasha' - the Wicked Child. What makes this Child wicked? The questions of the Wise Child and of the Wicked, it has often been remarked, are nearly identical. Indeed, they are more identical than is often recognized. For the Wise Child asks "What is this Holy Service ["Avodah"] which our G-d has commanded us?" The Wicked Child asks "What is this sacred service to you?" Thus, the Wicked Child actually acknowledges that the actions surrounding Pesach constitute a form of Worship. What is missing is that the Wicked Child does not go the extra step of identifying with this Holy Service. To the contrary, the Wicked Child asks: "What is this Sacred Worship to you? The question is really, "What do you get out of it?"

That is the question of the rasha' - the Wicked Person. It was the question, famously, of Elisha Ben Abuya, who saw a man performing mitzvot, yet dying tragically; and he also saw a man neglecting the same mitvot, yet he lived a long and prosperous life. What good is this religion, asked Elisha, if a man can not calculate and be sure of receiving reqard commensurate with the extra effort he puts into observance?

This is not, as many people seem to believe, the question of an Apikoros. This is the classic definition of a Rasha' - a Wicked Man. He knows the truth, but he rejects it because it does not give him what he wants.

On Pesach w are brought to reflect on this. Often, we may be tempted to give free rein to our spiritual feelings. Torah has given us a context for everything. The free exercise of spiritual emotions is fundamentally not a Jewish value. Rather, the value is placed on behaving the way we are expected. Of living halachically. When we live within the halachah, we attain a level, style and degree of freedom that is unlike anything else we can experience. When we make it up as we go along, we may be "getting in touch spiritually", but we may not be getting in touch Jewishly.

In this week's Parasha, we read of the observance of Yom Kippur. "Ve'initem et nafshotechem..." "And you shall afflict your souls..." The word "'initem" is the same root as the 'oni of the phrase "Lechem 'oni" - Matzah. In a sense, the Torah is telling us, We have become so full of ourselves, the only remedy is a purge. "'Initem" "Clean out the chametz, clean the room, make it spotless. Empty yourself of all preconceptions. Do teshuvah until you have brought yourself down to the state of pure flour mixed only with fire and water.

The Wicked Child absolutely recognizes that the seder is an 'Avodah - a holy service. His question is not "What does this mean to you? Rather, his question is, "What's in it for you?" When this attitude arises in the community, perhaps the only remedy is Stern Measures. Our spiritual / halachic year is bracketed by two instances of "Affliction." We share our spiritual simplicity, our spritual poverty with others on the nights of seder. But can we sustain them? For those of us who are merely human, G-d gave us a reminder at mid-year: Kippur.

The Haggadah states that we are all required to both "View" ourselves, and also to "Show" ourselves as if we personally had been redeemed from Mitzraim.

We Show ourselves by following Halachah. We View ourselves by imbuing our acts with kavannah. They are inseparable and interdependent.

Let us wish one another a shabbat shalom, a Chag Kasher VeSameach. La shanah haba' biYerushalaim (click on the title to get link to an article on why we say this formula at the end of the seder.)

Let it be your will, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that we always remain as simple as the matzah, that we recognize that this 'Avodah is for us, even when we do recognize all its aspects. Nonetheless, they pertain to us, they belong to us. We are blessed to be able to carry out the mitzvot. They are what makes us who we are.

Yours for a better world...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Parashat Metzora' - Word Perfect


The Gemara in Sanhedrin states that there has never been a case of Tzara'at of houses andthere never will be. This is quoted famously and frequently, although, as with so much else we find in the Gemara, there are also contradictory opinions. According, then, to The One Who Says there never has been and never will be, what is the purpose of stating in the Torah - in our Parashah, chapter 14, starting from verse 33 - the various laws pertaining to the affliction we generally translate as Leprosy of Houses?

The purpose, states the Gemara, is so that we can study it in detail and learn its laws.

If you find that position just a tad too cute, consider this:

Starting from verse 33, translating freely: "And G-d spoke to Moshe and to Aharon to say: When you [plural] shall come to the Land of Canaan which I am giving to you [plural] as a possession, and I have placed the affliction of TZARA'AT ['leprosy'] on a house of the land of your [plural] possession..." What is consistent with the position in the Gemara is not the verses of tzara'at, but the verse which introduces them. For, Moshe and Aharon do not, in fact, enter the Land. If we accept the position in Sanhedrin - which is contradicted, for example, in other places in the Gemara (Chacham Scroll quotes the Gemara in Yoma, as well as the Rambam) - then we should extend back to the introduction, for it is surely true that neither Moshe nor Aharon entered the Land. And why do we study the laws of the Offerings and Sacrifices of the Beit HaMikdash?

In a sense, the study of the Korbanot - the offerings of the Beit HaMikdash - is every bit as meaningful today as thje actual bringing of the Korbanot in the days when the temple stood. In another sense, of course, it is far more important to study the laws and rituals. By so doing, we enter into the spiritual essence of the act. At its best, the theoretical study of acts no longer tangible is the vestibule of the direct spiritual connection between humanity and G-d, it transcends the dead body of the goat or sheep, and goes straight to the spiritual content of the offering, the soul of the one bringing the offering - symbolically transferred to the animal in the act of Smicha - leaning one's weight on the animal right before it is slaughtered.

In fact, we believe this, in one sense, of the whole of Torah. It is a letter waiting to be opened. It is a message in a foreign language, awaiting the translator. Imagine having grown to the age of bar /bat mitzvah, living in the world, going through daily life, and never knowing your own name. Then, at your bat / bar mitzvah, your parents stand before you, your rabbi by their side, and recite the blessing "Blessed that you have released me from the punishment for this [child]". Imagine if, at that moment, instead of being given a tallit, a siddur, a kiddush cup - imagine if your parents turned to you and, for the first time in your life, told you your name.

Suddenly, you are both like everyone else, and completely unlike everyone else. In a flash, you re-experience your entire life, and now it all has a vast, profound layer of meaning that never existed before.

In Chasiddus, the concept of Belief in G-d is viewed on two levels. One level is organic: no living human can fail to know the source of all human life. But it is only when we are old enough, and our parents and the educators and the wise people of our community teach us the name of G-d, the history of G-d with us, the nature and attributes (for some, at least) of G-d: only when we put a name to what we already know do we recognize G-d as being actually G-d. There are boundaries and definitions, and they exist simultaneously.

In sefer Bereshit, G-d Divided between light and darkness... and G-d "called to the light, 'Day'! Called to the dark, 'Night!'"

A name is not sufficient. Each thing that exists must have boundaries, and to be human is to be self-aware, to know and explore and seek to encounter those very boundaries. The limits of our selves help to define who we are. And finally, to be hman means to not accept those boundaries as being fixed, but to strive throughout our lives to transcend them.

And so we go through our lives trying to put meaning to everything, to create the boundaries that make reality the diverse basket it is. Trying to put meaning to Torah. We often take a dogmatic stand, but as we are doing for the sake of Torah, we call it lishmah.

The story is told of Rav Chaim Brisker, the Rov of Brisk, Lithuania. He satwith his students one day and asked - "Why is a cup like this [cupping his palm and turning it upward] and not like that? [cupping his palm and turning it downward]?" The answer seemed obvious to all: "Because if it were like that [palms turned facing down] everything would fall out!"

No, said Rav Chaim. The reason is, because if it were like that, you couldn't get anything into it in the first place!

Rav Chaim is saying, it would not be a cup, by mere definition. On another level, Rav Chaim is saying, until we loosen up our minds and are able to think around the constructs that are part of our innate programming, we will never perceive the world as it is.

Now, return to the verses from this week's Parasha. Why did G-d tell Moshe and Aharon they would enter the Land? Did G-d lie to them? To those for whom Mashiach is the answer, the posuk clearly (?!) tells us that Moshe and Aharon will certainly live in the Land, after the Ressurection of the Dead. Which means that then, after the Geulah, we will be able to experience Tzara'at of houses?

The Torah speaks human words, it speaks to us in human language. Which means that, at least on one very profound level, we must misunderstand the text - how can the innefible thoughts of G-d be expressed in mere human language? Whatever program you are using to download Torah, you do not speak the Language of G-d - you will never be 'Word Perfect'!

Perhaps we might take a lesson from this week's Parashah, coupled with the insight of the Gemara. What if none of this ever happened? What if Torah never said, like Yogi Berra, half the things Torah said? Rav Chaim Brisker was teaching something very profound.

He was saying to his Talmidim: You define a cup as something this shape, and something that holds a liquid. I define a cup as something which is shaped in such a way that it can receive liquid. For only after the liquid has been put into the cup do we worry about it spilling if the cup is upset.

So often, many of us define Torah as something that has value and merit in itself - an intrinsic worth, transcendant and eternal. But we are lost in what the Kabbalists call the Exile of Language. We think that ,because we read the words of the text, we understand what the Torah means. To pretend we understand Torah - this is not Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake. Rather , this is Torah for ourselves. When we explain Torah, we place ourselves at the center of the universe. You think you are like cups full of wine. But there's the same wine in every cup. This is Torah? For this you need to sit in Yeshivah twelve hours a day? To all have the same answer to questions? To have the same pshat?

Rebbe Nachman used to say: let your interpretations of the text be creative; seek new ways of understanding the text. Only: don't change the halachah!

Rav Chaim Brisker was saying: Torah is a filter through which we come to G-d. Through which we see the world. If we allow it to lead us, it enables us to interact with G-d. If we take it to heart with our small, literalist minds, we may chase our own tails in endless circles of intellectual and religious fervor, but we are not getting any closer to G-d.

When the mind is closed by our knee-jerk, reactive and constricted definitions of Torah, it's no longer lishmah.

The wine can't possibly spill out of the cups. It couldn't be poured into them in the first place.

yours for a better world.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Parashat Tazria - The Consequences of Creation


First: we apologize for unavoidable delay in posting this Parasha, due to technical difficulties. The site was experiencing a Blogjam last week and we were unable to access before shabbat.

Second: those interested in a unique, and thoughtful take on Oral Torah are invited to click on the Title for a link to Neil Littman's commentary on Daf Yomi - "Daf Am Ha'Aretz" - or go directly to

Third: Hot Off The Press! "Jews On Trial", published by Ktav, Edited by Robert Garber. Posted on Amazon (though not 24-hour available yet). Available right now through the Princeton Jewish Center, Princeton, NJ. Book signing event on Sunday 17 April.

And now...

This week's Parasha is almost always read together with the following one, Metzorah, giving rise to opportunities to discuss the range of types of Tumah - ritual impurity - and their various effects.

This year, owing to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, we are reading no double parshiyot and the teaching of Tazria' emerges independently.

This parashah begins with the concept of ritual impurity as a result of a woman giving birth. There is then a fair amount of ink - both in the text and in the commentaries - devoted to the mitzvah of circumcision, followed by other forms of Tum'ah, all of which require the individual to be temporarily exiled from the camp.

The first thing that pops up on the screen is: the concept of ritual impurity - of being Tamei - is intimately tied to the act of giving birth. It is the mother who is Tamei, not the baby. And, even though there is blood associated with the act of circumcision, Milah does not render the infant boy Tamei, nor the Mohel who performs the ritual. It's a man's world, baby! But let us not wander off into apologetics, or into a Robert Graves-like (and I do give tremendous respect to the man!) wide-eyed paean to the awesome power of female fertility and its shocking and frightening effect on male-dominated society.

Why does the fundamental act of human creation introduce the notion of Tum'ah? What is Tum'ah, and how does it emerge from creation? Is there really a link between Tum'ah and creativity? I believe there is, and I believe the Torah is pointing to it in explicit terms. The Meforshim believed so as well, as witness the story of Rabbi Akiva debating with the Roman official who imprisoned him. The Roman asked if the creations of G-d were not superior to those of humans. No, responds Akiva, the creations of humans are superior: Cakes, superior to grain; Wine, superior to grapes. And the circumcised Jewish male, superior to the way he was born. For G-d gave us Mitzvot to enable us to attain our own perfection in this life.

The word Tam appears in Parashat Noach. The Hebrew root is spelled Taf, Mem. The root of Tamei / Tum'a is spelled Tet, Mem. However, the words are etymololgically linked (cf Jastrow) and appear to come from a common root concept meaning Circle, Ring. The concept of being Tam (Whole) is related to the closed loop of the circle. The concept of being Tamam (meaning Perfect - Tamim, in Noach) is the completeness of the circle. The concept of being Tamei (letter transmutation from Taf to Tet) is of the center of the circle closing up, the bounds swelling to seal off the opening. This suggests that there is a balance between the simple wholeness of a circle (Tam, meaning Simple: an empty circle. Remember that Pesach is coming, and one of the four children is called "Tam" - the child who knows something is going on, but isn't sure whether there is any meaning to any of it.) and, at the other extreme, a person who is so "full of oneself" as to exclude everyone from the center, the heart: exclude society, and exclude G-d. Again, in the Hagaddah we will call the fourth child "wicked", because the child separates himself / herself from the community, asking "What is this holy service to you?" It is fascinating that the Wicked Child's words show that the child recognizes the ritual of Pesach as being sacred, but deliberately does not participate. This is the classic definition of a Rasha' - a Wicked One.

Sidebar: Elisha Ben Abuya, known as "Acher" - "The Other" - is commonly misunderstood to have been an Apikoros. The popular notion is that, in order to be a true Apikoros, one must be truly learned. This gives people great opportunities for self satisfaction when dwelling publicly on their own Apikorsut. It is, however, not an accurate definition.

Elisha Ben Abuya, for example, was not an Apikoros; he was a Rasha' - he knew the truth and rejected it. An Apikoros is someone who says (for example) "In THOSE times they couldn't eat shellfish, because they didn't have refrigeration, and there was a risk of infection. Nowadays, with our modern conveniences, those halachas don't apply any more because the underlying reasons no longer exist."

A Rasha' is someone who knows the truth, and chooses to reject it.

A person who Creates - and the paradigm for human creation is the act of giving birth - is actually making something true, and something which has never existed before. The Creative act lies along the continuum of Chochmah / Binah / Da'at which is the very crux of G-d's creation of the universe. Thus, in all our Making, we are exercising that very aspect of ourselves which is Tzelem Elokim - the Image of G-d. After all, G-d is introduced to us as the Creator - it is the first time we see G-d, and it sets the stage for the entire cosmic relationship.

The second situation we are presented in the Parashah is that of Tzara'at - a whitening of the skin. Chapter 13, verse 1, opens: "And G-d spoke to Moshe and to Aharon..." The traditional understanding of why G-d addresses both Moshe and Aharon is, that it is Aharon's duty - the responsibility of the Kohen - to diagnose Tzara'at.

But does not the first instance of Tzara'at bind Moshe and Aharon in their destiny as twin leaders of 'Am Israel? In Shemot 4:6, at the Burning Bush, G-d commands Moshe to bring his hand to his bosom. When Moshe withdraws his hand, it is "metzora'at ka-sheleg". The ultimate translation of the word "zara'at" is problematic. It has traditionally been translated as "Leprosy". And the first appearance of this affliction - for it is definitely an affliction of some sort - is as the sign that Moshe will use to prove that G-d has sent him.

Moshe objects that the people will still not believe, even after the two signs (the staff that turns to a serpent, and the hand that turns white). G-d tells Moshe (4:9) "take the water from the river and pour it onto of the dry ground, and it shall turn to blood...:" When Moshe further objects that he is "not a man of words", G-d tries to cajole him one last time. But Moshe, desperate, says "Send anyone else, just not me." G-d becomes angered and says (verse 14) "And isn't there your brother, Aharon, the Levite?..."

This is the definitive moment where Moshe loses the Kahuna, where the roles of political leader and Religious leader are split. Moshe becomes, as some Meforshim have it, King; Aharon becomes Kohen Gadol.

The connection of Tzara'at, blood, the Kohen - this is unambiguous. This Parashah brings these themes together in ways that show what can happen when the human creative impulse gets out of control. There is a fine line in Judaism between the essential and critical importance of the individual, and the individual's role in the greater society. Moshe had a greater role to play, and his attempts to withdraw from his destiny failed. In failing, the history of the Jewish people was rewritten and Aharon emerged as the Halachic leader of the nation. This is an important distinction: Aharon is often identified as the "spiritual" leader, as the "religious" leader. Aharon is actually the Halachic leader, the person who sets the standard for all our behavior. Halachic observance Li-Shmah - For Its Own Sake - lies at the heart of our identity as a people. It is a standard we carry with us throughout our history.

The Halachic standard seeks to balance our own creative drives with the requirements of Torah. We are given the capacity to be full partners with G-d in the eternal ongoing process of Creation. And, lest we think we are creating all this ourselves, Aharon, the Man of Halachah, will come to examine us for spots that make us stand out. That set us apart. If we accept our role as G-d's partners, we can fulfill ourselves in this life. If we believe we are capable of all this on our own, then we are in fact rejecting our Partner.

For our own good, for as long as we remain Tamei - so full of ourselves that there is no room within us for others: not for our society, not for our own sisters and brothers, not for G-d - Aharon instructs us to leave the camp and remain in isolation until the swelling goes down. There is a mere breath between "Tam" and "Tamei".