This week’s parshah, M’tzora, is one of the most weird and unrelatable in the entire Torah. It deals primarily with three subjects: first, it contains a manual for priests performing the ritual for someone who becomes infected with nega tzara’at, a kind of lingering spiritual impurity that’s visible on the skin. Second, it explains the procedure for treating a house with tzara’at. Finally, we get to solutions for ritual impurity from various things genitals do, both healthy and unhealthy.
While our tradition goes into great detail on both the first and last topics, there’s a bit of a hitch with the second one, which the Talmud briefly explains on Sanhedrin 71a:
דתניא בית המנוגע לא היה ולא עתיד להיות
As it is taught [in a baraita]: there has never been a house with nega [tzara’at]
and there never will be.
The Torah spends an entire 23 verses discussing a detailed case, involving a complex diagnostic flowchart, implications for collateral damage, and a seemingly magical ritual—for curing an ailment that our very tradition reports has never existed, and will never exist.
Naturally, the Talmud is consternated as well, immediately going on to ask, “ולמה נכתב”—so why was it written?! And it answers, as cryptically as before:
דרוש וקבל שכר
Drash (examine, question, expound, interpret) it and receive a reward!
What is there to drash? What do we gain from using our precious time, energy, and brainpower into entertaining, even studying, a piece of text we have already been told has no meaning for anyone in the real world?
The Talmud often brings up cases from the Torah seemingly by free association. On Sanhedrin 71a, the house with nega tzara’at was invoked as the third item of a whole list of topics the Torah mentions, but have never existed and never will, namely:
The house with nega tzara’at, which is to be demolished completely and disposed of in a dump outside the camp,
The city led astray into idolatry, which must be burned to the ground and all of its inhabitants killed along with their livestock, and
The rebellious and bitter child, who must be executed by stoning in public.
What unites these three cases from the Torah is that, because of their condition or action, they must be destroyed completely, in public, with no mercy or exception. Even though the Torah says of the rebellious and bitter child, “all the men of the city will stone him to death”, we get a different message. Living by the Torah’s laws should never cause the death of a beloved child, much less at the hands of their parents. After all, Mishlei 3, 17 teaches, “[the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
In reaction to the violent, repugnant text of the case of the rebellious and bitter child, the Rabbis of the Talmud read deep into these cases, drashing them thoroughly to reveal the hidden exceptions and the limiting cases, so that by their skills of interpretation, they could understand a hidden principle of the Torah that seems opposite to the plain meaning.
First, they set strict age limits for the child in question: they have to have started puberty, but not completed it, and in any case have to be older than 13. Next, because the Torah uses the masculine gender in the word “child”, they specified that the child could only be a boy. He had to steal without permission two pounds of meat and close to a bottle of Italian wine, one of which belonged to his father and one which belonged to his mother, and eat it on someone else’s land. The list of specifics goes on and on, until future generations knew without a shadow of a doubt what was going on: the effective end of the death penalty.
That’s what the Talmud meant when it said, “drash it and receive a reward”. Through the exploration and struggle with our difficult and emotionally charged text, we come to an image of the future we desire, and a path—a path of pleasantness!—to get from our world to the one we so desperately desire.
When we’re taught something so unpleasant, it’s natural to question it and struggle against it. This parshah and the Rabbis of the Talmud teach us that we are right to do so. When we read about a house with nega tzara’at that we know has never, and will never exist, its is our responsibility to drash it until we reach our reward: an image of a world of justice and mercy, where we see the world we believe in and work with our texts to create it.