Tzamah Nafshi and Parashat Tazria

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Dine

Growing up, my father would challenge us as a family to come up with a Shabbat Zemer that connected to the week’s Parasha, which we would then sing as our Shabbat Zemer for the meal. Upon hearing about this challenge, a family friend once remarked “That might be easy for a Parasha like Noach, but what are you going to do when you hit Tazria Metzora.” In actuality, however, there is a clear choice for Parashat Tazria, as the Friday Night Zemer, Tzamah Nafshi, composed by the Ibn Ezra directly quotes a concept from this week’s parasha the concept of “ Basar Chai.”

In the Zemer the phrase comes up[1] in the stanza:

                                  בלב יצר חשוב כדמות חמת עכשוב
ואיככה ישוב הבשר החי

In the heart the inclination plots, like a spider’s poison,

so how is repentance possible for flesh that lives.

In Parashat Tazria the phrase “Basar Chai” comes up a number of times in the beginning of chapter 13. This section describes how different amounts of Tzara’at can cover the body and how that signifies in terms a person’s purity or impurity. The basic rule of thumb is that the appearance of “Basar Chai” translated here as healthy flesh in a person who still shows signs of Tzara’at must be considered impure and thus, cannot go through the purification process. A small portion of healthy flesh surrounded by afflicted skin, therefore signals that the Tzara’at is ‘chronic’ and the person is still impure , and if healthy flesh appears on an otherwise completely white body, it signals a shift from purity to impurity. These cases appear counter-intuitive as the appearance of healthy flesh signals impurity instead of purity.

While these prescriptions on the most literal sense may constitute best practices for skin infections, our tradition gleams deeper meaning from these rules. Rashi comments that the first case comes to teach us that the appearance of healthy flesh alone does not constitute enough to hide the old affliction. He comments on the second case that it comes to teach us that only when the skin looks completely of one type (either healthy or white) can the person become pure again. Thus, it requires a complete transformation for an afflicted person to become pure again.

Read in this context, the Ibn Ezra’s question becomes all the more haunting; if a return to a pure state requires full repentance then how can human beings, created with the evil inclination, ever hope to get a state of fully “living” flesh. We cannot achieve complete purity through this manner, and thus it may even be better to let ourselves become completely afflicted with Tzar’at to achieve that ‘pure’ state. It is at this point in the song that the chorus rushes in reminding us that “my soul thirsts for G-d, the Living G-d, and that my heart and flesh will joyfully praise the living G-d.” Although, our bodies and thoughts may remain imperfect, our soul still yearns for G-d’s presence and in that yearning, our imperfect minds and imperfect bodies return to praise and serve G-d.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is currently a first-year graduate student in the Molecular Biology department at Princeton University.

[1] I am indebted to the Princeton Bentscher for pointing out this connection, as I probably would not have discovered it otherwise. Ironically, I first received the Princeton Bentscher at the wedding of the daughter of the particular family friend mentioned above. The translations also come from the Princeton Bentscher

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