A Closer Look

[2] To the same degree as she does during the days of her menstrual flow: After the woman immerses herself in a mikveh following the completion of the week following the birth,1 she is technically permitted to resume marital relations with her husband, even if she continues to bleed for some time afterward. Furthermore, for the duration of her “non-defiling-blood” period (40 days for the birth of a boy and 80 days for the birth of a female), marital relations are permitted even if bleeding resumes after having stopped.

However, inasmuch as Jewish practice (which, in this case as in many others, has been enshrined in Jewish law) applies the menstrual restrictions on marital relations to any sighting of blood, as will be explained later,2 a woman who gives birth must wait until she has ceased bleeding totally (and then wait a full week) before immersing in a mikveh and resuming marital relations.

4-5 She will remain in this state: This post-immersion period is an anomaly. On the one hand, the woman can be bleeding, yet this uterine blood—unlike other types of uterine blood—does not render her ritually defiled; in fact, contact with it does not render anyone ritually defiled: it is undefiled blood. On the other hand, she is not allowed to enter the Tabernacle precincts or partake of consecrated or sacrificial food. She is in a prolonged state of deferment, having done all she is required to do but simply awaiting the prescribed amount of time to pass before resuming her full participation in spiritual living.

This paradoxical state is reminiscent of our prolonged exile. We have undergone all the purification processes that exile is meant to accomplish, and are now waiting for the required amount of time (and whatever providential experiences it is meant to bring) to pass. In the meantime, we are not allowed to rebuild and reenter the Temple nor partake of consecrated or sacrificial food.

In order to hasten this passage of time, we need to behave as the new mother does with regard to her post-immersion bleeding. We may indeed “see blood,” i.e., encounter aspects of the physical world that under normal circumstances we could not prevent from “defiling” us, i.e., distracting us from God and weakening our Divine consciousness. But when we encounter such aspects of life, we must nonetheless remain undefiled: we should pay their enticements no mind, remaining staunchly true to our true selves and our Divine mission.

By not succumbing to the allurements of the material world, we will be able to proceed to the next stage in this process: elevating the material world itself, transforming it into an expression of Divinity (i.e., revealing that the “blood” itself is undefiled).

The required period of waiting will then be over, and the final Redemption will be ushered in.3


[4-5] She will remain: The Hebrew word used here for “remain” (תשב) means “sit.” The Torah frequently employs the image of God “sitting”; this image is meant to convey either of two notions: that of descent, similar to how we lower ourselves to sit “down”; or that of changelessness, as in the idiom of sitting “still.”4 These two connotations of sitting allude to the two types of Divine creative energy (“light”): immanent light (memalei kol almin), which descends to enliven all aspects of creation, no matter how low their spiritual consciousness; and transcendent light (sovev kol almin), which is unchanged by creation, enveloping all reality at once and equally.

Both these types of light are produced through processes of constraint, albeit of different varieties. God creates His transcendent light by willing it to shine; this act of will is a self-imposed focusing of His undifferentiated primal self-revelation on the act of creation. We may thus describe it as a “qualitative” constraint; the light is not limited in intensity, but it is focused on creation rather than on anything else. In contrast, God creates His immanent light by constricting the intensity of the transcendent light; we may therefore describe it as a “quantitative” constraint.5

The woman who gives birth, in this context, is an allegory for how God creates the universe: her “remaining”/“sitting” alludes to the two types of constraint that produce the two varieties of Divine light that create and sustain the world.

The purpose of both of these acts of constraint is to create a world antithetical to Divine consciousness and revelation, which can then be transformed into being consummately conducive to Divine consciousness and revelation.6

7 She was considered “defiled”: Although ideally, every Jew should be ritually pure at all times in order to be able to enter the Temple precincts and experience the heightened spiritual consciousness attainable there, the Torah does not normally require a person who has become ritually defiled to rush to rid himself of defilement at the earliest opportunity. (The exception is the pilgrim festivals, for which all Jews are required to be undefiled in order to be able to partake of the sacrifices that must be offered up on these occasions.7)

In the case of the new mother, however, since the Torah considers her “defiled”—even though in name only—and considers her not to have completed her atonement process during her extended purification period, it is clear that she is encouraged to offer up her sin-offering at the earliest permissible opportunity.

The sages teach us that in some sense God fulfills all the commandments He obligates us to perform. Thus, if He urges the new mother to complete her purification process at the earliest opportunity, not to spend even one extra moment deprived of the opportunity to enter the Temple and partake of its holiness, euphoria, and exhilaration, it follows that He is equally anxious to redeem us from our exile so we can “join Him,” so to speak, both in the rebuilt Temple and in our spiritually elevated lives, which will also become His “Temple” with the advent of the messianic era. The only reason He delays our redemption is in order that we, too, yearn to be redeemed immediately.8

Chapter 13


[2] Tzara’at: Although tzara’at does not result from any natural physiological condition, when Divine providence decrees that this condition appear on a person, the resulting lesion is produced by limiting the circulation of blood in the area, which then turns white. This obstruction is, in turn, the physical manifestation of its corresponding spiritual antecedent: the obstruction of the flow of Divine consciousness from chochmah to binah. This is alluded to by the fact that one of the Names of God associated with binah is Ekyeh (אהיה); the numerical value of the regressive iteration of this Name (א + אה + אהי + אהיה) is 44, the numerical value of the word for “blood” (דם).

The psychological equivalent of this blockage between chochmah and binah occurs when we contemplate, as we should, God’s transcendence and how He manifests Himself in creation, but our heightened awareness of God’s presence does not cause us to feel nullified within that presence.

When this self-nullification is lacking, our enhanced awareness of God can actually inflate our ego even further, instead of nullifying it as it should. In the words of the sages, “If [the student] merits, [the study of the Torah] acts for him as an elixir of life; if he does not, it acts as an elixir of death.”9 The word for “merit” (זכה) also means “to be refined,” intimating that the “merit” that determines whether the study of the Torah betters or debilitates the student is his degree of spiritual refinement, i.e., lack of ego.

This amplified sense of self intoxicates us with overconfidence, which, unless checked, will corrupt us in many ways. It can delude us into thinking that we can safely lower our guard against the enticements of materialism; it can render us overly judgmental of others (hence the increased propensity toward gossip or slander); it can exaggerate our self-estimation, thereby leading us to depression when we fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and so on. Whatever the case, the forces of evil siphon off Divine energy from this unbalanced binah.

This added opportunity for the forces of evil to insinuate themselves into our lives is reflected physically in the growth of white hair within the lesion. As we will see later,10 hair represents a highly attenuated flow of Divine energy—so attenuated that the forces of evil are allowed to tap it. For this reason, hair must normally be kept short, in order to prevent the forces of evil from siphoning off more than the minimal Divine energy that they are allocated for their continued existence.

In order to restore the flow of chochmah to binah, the individual must be presented to a priest, who represents chesed, which is derived from chochmah (both sefirot being on the right axis of the sefirotic tree). The priest then quarantines him for seven days, in order to allow the seven lower sub-sefirot of chochmah to re-enter binah (for it is always the seven lower sub-sefirot of a higher partzuf that become vested within a lower partzuf), imparting to it its inherent sense of self-nullification before God.11

2 Individuals of otherwise sterling character: The task of refining ourselves, of realizing the Torah’s vision for us as human beings, is long and arduous, but entirely possible to implement. The Torah itself testifies that fulfilling its instructions “is not in heaven…not beyond the sea…but very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, [making it easy for you] to fulfill it.”12 Moreover, at each step of the way, God assists us in navigating the subtle pitfalls that threaten to thwart our progress. In the words of the sages, “When someone sets out to purify himself, he is assisted from above.”13

This principle is demonstrated clearly by the phenomenon of tzara’at, which affects only individuals who have refined themselves as much as they can using all the resources available to them: the study of the Torah; the practice of its commandments; introspection; repentance; the cultivation of ethical conduct in business and personal life; the development of mature faith, trust in God, devotion to one’s Divine mission and alacrity in performing it, and so on. Utilizing all these tools to the fullest, the individual might eventually purge all the dross from his psyche, thereby transforming himself into an altogether righteous person, who no longer has to wrestle with evil. Such a person’s life-challenge is now to constantly ascend to ever higher levels of Divine consciousness and to inspire others to emulate his example.

On the other hand, after the individual has exhausted all these tools, some subtle evil might still remain, lurking so deep within the individual that he might never become aware of it on his own. When this is the case, God signals him to this effect by afflicting him with tzara’at.

(It is therefore understood why tzara’at no longer occurs: since the destruction of the Temple, it is simply not possible for us to refine ourselves so consummately that the only imperfections left within us are those that are signaled by the onset of tzara’at.)

When the only evil remaining within a person is of such a subtle nature, it can only surface in very superficial, unpremeditated behavior. The archetype of such behavior is gossip, which often takes the form of a casual remark that slips through otherwise innocuous conversation. Speech is indeed a superficial activity, and it is therefore relatively easy to control—this being the reason why it is one of the first aspects of our lives that we are bidden to refine.14 But it is also an expression of the soul, and therefore, unrehearsed speech can at times betray the inner recesses of the heart.

For these reasons, tzara’at afflicts in particular people who are guilty of nothing else but gossip, and it appears on the superficial elements of their lives: their skin, their clothing, and their houses. These entities are three increasingly external layers that envelop us: our skin is our innermost layer of “clothing,” tailored perfectly to our bodies; next come our actual clothes, also cut to fit our bodies but not as precisely as our skin; and finally, our homes, into which we “fit,” conducting our essential life-activities within them, but which are the least-precisely tailored to us physically.

Tzara’at first affects the outermost “garment,” the house, because at first, gossip is entirely superficial. If the individual does not take this cue and neglects to purge himself of his inner, residual evil, tzara’at breaks out on his clothing, indicating that his unrestrained gossip has given the deep-seated evil it expresses the chance to seep into him from the outside, so to speak, so that his behavior is less superficial than it was originally. If he ignores this cue as well, tzara’at breaks out on his skin, indicating that this evil, although still superficial, is now part of him. At this stage, he must be ostracized from society, and hopefully this demonstration of the consequences of his behavior will inspire him to mend his ways.

Since tzara’at is intended to cure the individual of his hidden evil, the diagnostic and purification rituals must be overseen by a priest. The priest is the earthly embodiment of God’s infinite loving-kindness, which alone is able to uproot and weed out this otherwise inaccessible evil. Furthermore, it is specifically the priest’s speech that frees the sufferer from his defilement, for in order to counteract the expression of the sufferer’s inner evil via his unrectified speech, the priest must employ his power of holy speech to elicit the inner goodness of God’s infinite loving-kindness.15

For only they are authorized to pronounce someone or something defiled: It is important to note that until the priest pronounces an individual defiled, he is not considered to be so, even if he exhibits all the indicative symptoms. Thus, before the pronouncement of the priest, these symptoms do not reflect defilement; indeed, very similar symptoms—and in some cases, even more serious ones—can indicate freedom from defilement.

Significantly, the principal color of the lesions that indicate a possible outbreak of tzara’at is white, which is a symbol of purity and innocence.16 This indicates that the appearance of the symptoms of tzara’at is in fact a manifestation of sublime levels of spiritual energy (“lights”). Whenever such sublime “lights” well up, overflowing their accompanying media of transmission (“vessels”), the result is a supra-natural manifestation of Divine energy, which must be managed carefully in order to avoid possibly detrimental repercussions.

In terms of human experience, the symptoms of tzara’at result from an upwelling of holy rapture (ratzo) that is not mitigated by a concomitant sense of humble devotion to our Divine mission (shov). We have seen this phenomenon before, in the unauthorized incense offering of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu,17 which is possibly why the Torah discusses the laws of tzara’at immediately after the account of their offering, even before continuing with its narrative of the events of that day.18

If the individual upon whose body, clothes, or house the symptoms of tzara’at appear does properly manage his Divine rapture, taking care to balance it with humble devotion to God’s will, he will not be pronounced defiled; his symptoms are indications of exceptional holiness rather than of defilement. Only if he persists in his “antisocial” behavior of preferring to bask in God’s presence rather than elevating the world in order to make it into God’s home is he pronounced defiled, necessitating the demolition of his house, the burning of his clothes, or his banishment from the community until he repents.

In this context, the sin of gossip for which tzara’at is the corrective punishment can be seen to be a superfluity of what could have (and should have) been good—or even holy—but instead degenerated into the opposite: We are all acutely aware of how powerful our speech is in forging social ties and promoting peace, and whether we are conscious of it or not, this is why we relish social conversation, clarifying issues with each other until we reach mutual understanding. When, however, a hidden drop of residual haughtiness insists that our reputation or esteem take precedence over the advancement of social harmony, some gossip or slander is inadvertently released in the heady excitement of conversation.

This explains why the Messiah is referred to as being afflicted with tzara’at.19 The messianic Redemption, the ultimate exodus from Egypt, will be characterized by a complete release from all limitations that nowadays constrict the revelation of holiness and Divine consciousness, similar to the overabundance of holiness manifest in the symptoms of tzara’at.20

For only they are authorized to pronounce someone or something defiled: As we just pointed out, it is the priest’s pronouncement—rather than the appearance of qualifying symptoms per se—that render the person ritually defiled. This fact puts considerable onus on the priest, especially in light of the consequences of his pronouncement: the ritually defiled individual must be banished from society, even from the company of other ritually defiled people. This total ostracism is not required in the case of any other type of defilement.

The Torah therefore specifically requires a priest to make this pronouncement. The priests are all descendants (and therefore spiritual heirs) of Aaron, whom we have seen21 (and will see further22) both embodied the ideal of brotherly love and promoted brotherly love among the people. God therefore refers to the priests as His men of loving-kindness23 and grants them the privilege of blessing His people daily.24 Moreover, the blessing tradition requires them to recite before pronouncing this blessing is “Blessed are You, God, our God, He who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.”25

Imbued with this love for their compatriots, the priests—while remaining objectively true to the Torah’s directives for determining if a given outbreak of symptoms renders the sufferer defiled or not—will make all efforts to ensure that the law indeed requires them to pronounce the sufferer defiled before doing so. Furthermore, their inherent love for their fellows will compel them to do whatever it takes to declare them undefiled at the earliest possible opportunity.

The lesson for us here is that when we encounter someone whose behavior makes us judge him to be unfit to be included with us or befriended by us, we should not rush to declare him so. Rather, we should first examine ourselves in order to determine how well we exemplify the ideals of brotherly love. If we are in any way lacking in this regard—if we are not a “priest, a descendant of Aaron”—we have no right to pass such judgment, for it could well be that our perception is skewed by our unrefined sentiments rather than grounded solidly in the objective laws of the Torah.

Moreover, anyone who is less than a “priest”—an embodiment of brotherly love—is not qualified to ostracize another Jew, and if he presumes to do so, his pronouncement is no less than an outright lie, for as stated, it is only the pronouncement of the priest that renders the individual defiled (and therefore subject to exclusion from society), not the symptoms themselves.

It thus follows that someone who utters such an unauthorized judgment has slandered his fellow, which, as we have seen,26 results in him being afflicted with tzara’at, rather than the person he sought to stigmatize.

Therefore, in order to purify himself of this defilement, the judgmental person should isolate himself from social contact until he trains himself to see only the positive in his compatriots.

By learning how to love our fellows “unwarrantedly”—i.e., positively, regardless of their objective behavior—we counteract the cause of our present exile, unwarranted hatred. Thereby, we hasten the advent of the final, messianic Redemption.27

13 If the tzara’at has covered all his flesh: One of the signs given by the sages that the Messiah’s arrival is imminent is that “the entire government has become heretical, with none to rebuke them.” This notion, they say, is alluded to in the law that if tzara’at covers the entire body, the person is undefiled.28

There are two ways of understanding this sign given by the sages:

· Negatively, i.e., that heresy will infect all the world’s governments. None of them will acknowledge God as Master of the world and its lawgiver, promoting instead licentiousness and barbaric behavior. In this entrenched, depraved condition, the Messiah is the world’s only hope; it is therefore a sign of his imminent arrival. But since the world will not be worthy of redemption, God will redeem it “by force”—for His own sake, as it were, fulfilling the verse, “For My own sake, for My own sake I will do this, for how can I let My Name be profaned?”29

· Positively, i.e., that the truth of the Torah will become so self-evident that it will be universally acknowledged that any government that does not submit to the Torah’s rules is “heretical,” i.e., based on the delusion that it is possible to create a just and moral society any other way. Accordingly, the Jewish people will be esteemed as the preservers of the Torah’s message of true monotheism. In this enlightened condition, the Messiah’s imminent arrival will be a natural outgrowth of the world’s desire for moral perfection. God will not have to “impose” the redemption on the world.

Inasmuch as the sages cite the law given in this verse as support for their sign, it follows that the two ways of understanding their sign parallel the two ways of understanding this law, namely:

· Negatively: The spread of tzara’at over the entire body does not intrinsically indicate that the person is undefiled; the fact that it does so is simply another one of the Torah’s rules that are not grounded in logic or reason, just like the rest of the laws governing tzara’at. The Torah here “imposes” its will on reality, irrespective of natural causes or processes.

This, indeed, is the position adopted by Jewish legal (i.e., halachic) exegesis, which therefore limits this rule to the case stated specifically in this verse: when tzara’at spreads out from a lesion that had been pronounced defiled or suspected of being so. In contrast, when tzara’at spreads over the entire body from the outset or from a lesion that was pronounced undefiled, the person must be declared defiled.30

· Positively: The spread of tzara’at over the entire body indicates that it is the natural condition of the person’s skin; this is why it does not render the person defiled. This is the position that Rashi adopts as the contextual understanding of this passage, according to which it makes no difference under what circumstances the spread occurs—in all cases it indicates that the person is undefiled.

Clearly, it is preferable that redemption occur the second way, obviating the need for universal moral degeneration and the forceful imposition of God’s will on an antagonistic world. The Torah therefore promises that prior to the Redemption, the Jewish people will indeed repent fully, of their own accord, and on their own initiative, thereby ushering in the Redemption.31 This repentance need not be evinced by a wholesale return to full Jewish observance, for that revival will be one of the Messiah’s first accomplishments.32 Rather, this repentance consists of the sincere dissatisfaction with the present state of reality—accompanied by the resolution to change it—that we have all experienced numerous times throughout our lives.33

It is therefore imperative that the Jewish people encourage the nations of the world to fulfill the commandments that the Torah obligates them to observe. By acknowledging the Torah as the sole possible basis for true ethical behavior and moral justice, the non-Jewish world will appreciate the Jewish people as the vanguards of world justice, morality, and peace. This will pave the way for the ultimate, messianic Redemption.34

29 If a man or a woman has a lesion on the head or on the beard: As was noted above,35 the eruption of tzara’at on the head is caused by haughtiness, as opposed to tzara’at elsewhere on the body, which is the result of gossip or slander. The reason for this difference is that gossip and slander are superficial misdeeds, as explained above,36 which therefore affect the skin elsewhere on the body, whereas haughtiness is a warped mental attitude, which therefore affects the head.37