Tazria-Metzora – Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Stephen Richer
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Leviticus 12:1 — 15:33

The saying that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is an ancient Jewish proverb.  But like most of my acquired wisdom, I first heard the saying from my Mom and Dad who were upset that I regularly skipped showers for ten extra minutes of computer games (Starcraft in particular).  Had my parents not taught me the principle, however, it would have been made apparent to me by this week’s double Torah portion which is almost entirely about cleanliness.

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Lev. 12:2 – 12:3)


“If a man has a se’eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzara’th on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.

The kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath.  When the kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean.” (Lev 13:2 – 13:3)

And a final instance before we move on:

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, if any man has a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is unclean.

Any bedding upon which the man with the discharge will lie, shall become unclean, and any object which he will sit, shall become unclean.” (Lev 15:2 – 15:4)

This double portion undoubtedly had practical applications—general sanitation couldn’t have been too great in the pre-historic (defined by me, and others, as anything preceding the fall of the first temple in 586 BCE).  Child morbidity rates often approached 50 percent, and showers were few and far between.

But Torah wisdom spans time; what application can be drawn from this portion when leprosy—as alluded to in the second quote—is no longer a major concern?

Yes, there is, as I first suggested, a general prescription for cleanliness and organization.  The sages say that the state of our houses, or our personages, is reflective of the state of our minds—if one is unorganized, so too is the other.  This is substantiated by the Jewish notion that the person is composed of three equal and interconnected parts: the spiritual, the mental, and the physical.

Yet if this notion of cleanliness stopped there, we could simply hire a house cleaner and a fashion agent and thereby establish harmony in at least one of the three Jewish parts.

If something is too good to be true, it usually is—Judaism is supposed to be a difficult religion to follow.  So what are the broader applications for this call for cleanliness?  Other commentaries tell us that the physical impurities mentioned in this Parsha are not only physical, be they ailments or natural occurrences, but they are also symbolic for transgressions or unclean acts.  If we accept this premise, then I can see four ways in which the portion speaks beyond hygiene:

One: Wrong-doings cannot be hidden.  We might think that our unseemly conduct can be hidden by a public façade of Mr. Perfect, but it can’t.  The portion spends much time on the visible effects of the leprosy-like disease; the whole community is aware of the affliction—no make-up or hair cut is sufficient disguise.  Similarly, even the man who cheats on his spouse or steals from a bank and is not immediately apprehended cannot walk away unscathed.  First, he can never hide from his own conscious.  Nobody phrased this better than Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart, in which the main character is undone by the murdered man’s heartbeat that only he hears.  But the portion teaches that our relationships with others are similarly adulterated.  Community members might not sense the exact wrong, but they can see at least part of the uncleanliness.

Two: Deal with problems/uncleanly acts immediately.  For every uncleanliness the portion describes, it immediately follows with an antidote or a prescription to see the kohanim.  As noted in point one, problems don’t get better if they fester. (The Torah here predicts one of our chief remedies for cutting health care costs… don’t wait until problems get so bad that you require the emergency room).

Three: Sins and uncleanlinesses are contagious.  The portion is adamant about not only cleansing the perpetrator of the unclean action, but anything that might have come into contact with the actor.  “The kohen shall order that they clear out the house, before the kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean.”  Disease spreads, but so too do ways of life.  Fascinating studies show that if you spend more time with thin people, you’re likely to lose weight.  Similarly, the depressed and pessimistic often have a negative effect on those around them.  The pernicious habits of the “morally unclean” can likewise spread.  Basically, make sure your kid goes to the right kind of school.

Fourth (and finally):  Take some time to reflect.  Nothing in the portion that is unclean or tainted is made clean in an instant.  Rather, they require waiting periods.  “And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary.” (Lev. 12:4)  “And anyone who touches the flesh of the man with a discharge, shall immerse his garments and immerse himself in water, and he shall remain unclean until evening.” (Lev. 15:7).  If we commit an unclean act, we cannot simply say “sorry,” and that jump right back into life.  We have to set aside time where we behave differently so that we reflect on the action.

This week’s double portion does preach personal hygiene, and it isn’t adverse to the idea of spring cleaning.  But perhaps more importantly, it teaches us the characteristics of our unclean actions and their negative effects.

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