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Tazria-Metzora

This is a double Torah portion. Parashat Tazria describes the period of impurity after child-birth. It also goes into great details about the ailment of tzara'at - a disorder which could affect skin or clothes. Parashat Metzora deals with the purification ritual for a leper (probably not the illness we know as leprosy today) as well as with houses which seem to be affected by a similar plague. Metzora concludes with other emissions which cause impurity.

Another voice


Tazria-Metzora by Daniel Roth :: 5775

Daniel Roth teaches Chumash at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and is completing an MA in Talmud at the Hebrew University. He is pursuing a doctorate on Jewish approaches to conflict resolution.

This dvar Torah originally ran in 5766

"Torah Scholars increase peace in the world" - Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 64a

Several years ago, towards the end of Shabbat services, I was asked by someone sitting next to me: "How do we know the Siddur has a sense of humour? Because it says, "Torah scholars increase peace in the world!" Being a first year Yeshivah student, this infuriated me. Now, years later, I think a lot about this statement[1], and I ask myself what does it really mean? Is it just a joke, or could it be reality? Can studying Torah make us truly better at bringing peace? My answer is that it depends on how we study Torah in general, and in particular, how we interpret the many conflict narratives in our traditional texts.

I would like to suggest that there are two ways of interpreting these conflict narratives. The first way is the classic interpretive approach: the individual interpreter reads a story, assumes there is only one way of reading it (the Peshat - literal meaning), fills in all the textual gaps as if they don't exist, and as a result tends to favour one side in the conflict over the other. The interpreter becomes the "friend" of one side of the conflict, and then another interpreter may take the other side, thereby perpetuating the conflict. An alternative approach to interpreting conflict narratives is what I would like to refer to as "mediative interpretation". This is the study of the text together with the spectrum of commentaries, recognizing that there may be several legitimate interpretations, and that there are textual ambiguities that cannot be resolved. This approach may foster awareness that there needs to be a distinction between an agreed reality (in this case the words in the verse), and the assumptions behind the interpretation of that reality. The interpreter will now be equipped to understand the rationale behind each side of the conflict, thereby recreating the hidden "third story"[2]. The interpreter in this style will not be perceived as taking sides, but rather as remaining neutral and assisting in reconciling the other conflicting sides.

To illustrate the distinction between these two approaches, I will site one example of a Biblical conflict and its interpretations. In Genesis 16, we have a wonderful demonstration of how conflict can be triangular.[3] We are told there that after Sarah was unable to have a son of her own, she offers her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham. Once Hagar proceeds in getting pregnant, Sarah senses that her position is being threatened, so she turns to the third side of the story, Abraham, and says, "...may the Lord judge between you and me!" The commentaries on this verse are in disagreement about the nature of Sarah's words. Genesis Rabbah (a collection of midrashim – traditional rabbinic narratives) comments that, "whoever plunges eagerly into litigation does not escape unscathed" and therefore Sarah should be punished for her overly combative behaviour. On the other hand, the Targumim (early rabbinic Aramaic translations)[4] on this verse hear something different in her words and translate them as "and let Him spread peace between me and you". According to the Targum's account, Sarah is not blaming Abraham, but rather expressing her deep desire to reconcile their relationship[5].

What do we do with this disagreement? A classic approach would be to choose one interpretation over the other. Either Sarah was out of line or she wasn't. The more neutral approach to interpretation, "meditative interpretation", embraces both contradictory interpretations as containing aspects of truth. Perhaps from Sarah's perspective she only meant to say, "May G-d spread peace between you and me", however Abraham may have heard her as blaming and wanting to bring him to a Divine court. It is often the case that intentions are understood in completely different ways, especially in a difficult conversation.[6]

Through the "meditative interpretation" approach to studying Torah, which seeks to mediate not only between the conflicting sides within the narrative, but also between the different interpreters in conflict, we can begin to create a method of Torah study that gives us tools to manage our own conflicts and increase peace in the world. The seemingly humorous statement, "Torah Scholars increase peace in the world" is not only my favorite text, it is also my dream.

[1] In addition to the citation in T.B Berachot 64a, it may also be found as the final lines of several tractates of the Talmud and Midrash: i.e. T.B. Yevamot, Nazir, Critut, Y.T. Berachot, Avot. de. R. Natan b., Sifre Devarim etc...

[2] The third story "means describing the problem between the parties in a way that rings true for both sides simultaneously." Stone, Patton, Heen, Difficult Conversations. Penguin Press. 1999. p. 150.

[3] There is an old Napalese proverb that says: "When the first wife fights with the second, the husband gets his nose cut off." That is because conflict is triangular in origin and in resolution. Augsburger. D.W. Conflict Mediation Across Cultures. 1992. Chapter 5.

[4] Early Rabbinic Aramaic translations, in this case Targum Yonatan, Neophiti and the Jerusalem Targum.

[5] Philo in his book "The Preliminary Studies" 151-153, also gives a favorable account to Sarah's words. "On which account she says very appropriately, "May G-d judge between thee and me; not making haste to condemn him beforehand as having done her wrong, but intimating a doubt, that perhaps he may speedily do her right..."

[6] Difficult Conversations ch. 3 "Don't assume they mean it: Disentangle Intent from impact."

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