Parshat Metzora: Illness, Death, Grief, Then Art

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Judith Joseph:

For more about Rabbi Baruch Thaler:

Piece Description , Judith Joseph, “Death of an Artist”

Rabbi Baruch Thaler led me through levels of meaning of the Torah portion for this week: (Metzora: Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33). It has to do with a ritual of purification for a person who has a skin disease. I worked on sketches and ideas, inspired by our learning, thinking about how illness can wipe away our individuality, our story.

Sadly, on March 19, 2022 my mother passed away.

I decided to make art about this momentous event. I met again with Rabbi Thaler, and experienced a profound meeting of the minds which was both uplifting and cathartic, resulting in this painting.

Discussion Questions:
1. Metzora tells the story of the reintegration of the sick back into the community. It describes the healing process and this work both delineates while in and of itself acted as a healing process for Judith Joseph. What inherent healing properties can be found in the art creation process?

2. Judith Joseph employs various artistic techniques to bring out the emotion of this piece, including drips, layers, translucence and splatters. In relation to the healing process and mourning a life, what do each of these techniques represent for you?

3. The focal subject of this image is Judith Joseph’s mother. She describes the act of drawing her own mother as a truly profound experience. What unique benefits are there to creating art and interpreting torah passages from a hyper personal perspective?

4. The natural green face echos Marc Chagall’s green faced figure from I and the village. Her expression parallels the moment of encountering G-d in Bernini’s Ecstasy of Santa Teresa. As an art historian these pieces are embedded in Elsie Kanin’s face. What other connections to historic artworks do you see in this piece?

Rabbi Baruch Thaler:

After the various forms of Nega Tzara’at (leprosy plague) (footnote 1) impurities are depicted in last week’s Parshat Tazriah in vivid detail, this week’s Parsha continues with describing how to remediate them through specific purification processes, aided by the Kohen. Yet despite focusing on the cure, the name of our Parsha still evokes the malady itself: Metzora (מצורע) – which translates as “a person afflicted with tzara’at.” This seems to be a misnomer, for if we are now outlining the treatment stage, shouldn’t its name reflect that too? How about naming it “Taharah” (Purification) (footnote 2), or a similar appropriate appellation?

The Talmud (footnote 3) records the words of Reish Lakish who interpreted Metzora as being a conflation (notarikon) of the Hebrew phrase “Motzi Shem Ra” (מוציא שם רע) – meaning, “one who ‘lets out’ disrepute (footnote 4) on another.” For the tzara’at condition is not purely medical (footnote 5); it is the physical effect on the person’s body of his inappropriate moral behavior, namely, speaking slander.

Yet while this explains the etiology of this illness and the etymology of its name, it still does not address the reason why we associate the healing with a term that recalls the disorder itself.

We can clarify this by examining the details of the opening purification ritual: the Kohen is to gather, most notably: ceder, hyssop, red-dyed wool, two birds, and “living” (spring) water collected in an earthen vessel. After slaughtering one bird and mixing her blood in the vessel, the Kohen binds the other items together and uses them to sprinkle the leper seven times with this concoction. The live bird is then set free.

What is the significance of these specific materials and why are they used in this way? Notice that this is a study of contrasts: the cedar is the tree that most signifies height (footnote 6), the hyssop is considered a mere grass (footnote 7); the wool and blood are red, the water and indeed the skin of leper himself are colorless or white; one bird embodies life, while the other is killed. Yet despite expressing polar opposites, they are all employed together as one unit to facilitate one ritual. It is as if the Kohen is expressing that true restoration is not by avoiding one extreme for the other, but rather by integrating even what seems to be antithetical and thereby transmute even the most negative situation into the most positive outcome.

How is this possible? Kabbalah explains that, on a deeper level, even the most inferior state of a given matter is part-and-parcel with its superior state. Indeed, they are one and derive from a single source. It is how it manifests below in our world and how we relate to it that makes it appear to be dimorphic. By tapping into its energy origin and acting in an improved way, we can reveal that even what appears as flawed has the potential to be transformed into perfection.

A prime depiction of this concept is found in one of the earliest kabbalistic texts, the Sefer Yetzirah (the “Book of Creation”) (footnote 8). After positing that all of existence is a manifestation of the 22 Hebrew letters, it states that they are assembled on a sphere that rotates, giving the letters different configurations to spell out different words. The example it uses for this is the word mentioned in our Parsha in relation to the leper, Nega (blemish): “There is nothing higher in the good realm than Oneg (delight), and there’s nothing lower in the bad realm than Nega” ( אין בטובה למעלה מענג ואין ברעה למטה מנגע ) .

Note that both Oneg and Nega are composed from the same 3 letters; it is just a matter of how they are arranged that makes all the difference, from signifying the most sublime sacred state (Oneg, which also expresses the sacredness of Shabbat) or the most abysmal polluted state (Nega, the condition that also expresses severe spiritual contamination). For in order to restore the holy, there is no need to recreate from new; all we need to do is to take what we already possess in its chaotic state and merely reassemble it in a way that repairs the channels so that the divine energy once again flows in the most ideal way.

[Moreover, other kabbalistic sources elucidate (footnote 9) that the 3 letters of Oneg (ענג) are an acronym for the 3 features of the Garden of Eden: Eden, River, Garden ( עדן, נהר, גן), in that order. As the verse states (footnote 10): “And a river goes out from Eden to water the garden” (ונהר יוצא מעדן להשקות את הגן). When, however, this order is disrupted and the river does not flow seamlessly from Eden, we get the negative state of Nega. To return the positive flow, we just need to rearrange what we already have to its original form.]

This is why Kabbalah also teaches that the impurities depicted in the Torah, most notably tzara’at, are in fact supreme states of holiness that are too holy to be contained in our mundane world. For this reason the leper’s skin turns white, the color which represents the spiritual; the blood, which represents the body, has withdrawn; this indicates that he cannot integrate the transcendent spirit with his physical existence. The connecting flow that merges the two has been severed. When in this condition, he becomes an impure leper (footnote 11). To reverse this, he needs to reunite the opposites and reveal that they are indeed one all along. In this way, he learns from even his most serious misstep and converts it into a vehicle to become better yet. This is how the ultimate healing actualizes.

This too is why we are taught that, beyond the rituals mentioned in the Parsha, the main method to rectify oneself from the sin of slander and tzara’at is Torah study, as the verse says, “this is to be the Torah (laws) of the leper on the day of his purification” (footnote 12) – for just like the sin of slander came about through words uttered, albeit inappropriately, so too the Teshuvah for it is facilitated through spoken words, the words of Torah. As the verse states, “Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue” (מות וחיים ביד הלשון ) (footnote 13): the same tongue can lead to the spiritual death of the leper – as the Talmud states that “the Metzora is considered like a dead person” (footnote 14) – or to an ideal life of holiness through spiritual ablution and Teshuvah. The two birds used for the purification, creatures of chirping and chatter, symbolize this too: when oral communication is misused it can lead to death, whereas when used in the correct way it leads to spreading one’s wings for the liberating flight of life.)

This is most pronounced by the task of the artist, represented by the Kohen of our Parsha: to take a plethora of seemingly disorganized raw materials and to apply them in such a way that they form a whole new visual language that cannot be communicated any other way. Through this aesthetic restructuring the artist-priest alchemizes the chaos of her life into the most profound cathartic and curative experience.

So too, through art – especially through Judith’s mesmerizing and moving work featured here – even a painful subject like the passing of a loved one is elevated to a lesson of celebrating life and expressing all the positive traits that the deceased personified. The departure of her soul from her body is due to the surplus of her spirit that cannot be contained in her in the physical realm anymore. Unlike the metzora who is encouraged to repair his blemishes and return to his natural body state – for the departed, especially one who has lived a full life, it is time for her to leave her corporeal reality and return to the soul’s natural source where all is pure.

In light of this we can understand why our Parsha carries a name denoting the ailment, for by tackling the illness head-on in a constructive way, not ignoring it, we can indeed transform it into the greatest remedy. We can thus redefine the name of our Parsha as “Motzi Ra”: to extract and “get rid of the negative” from the given undesirable condition, to reveal the holy potential even in the most severe states of impurity, and return them in unity to the divine source of light (footnote 15).

This also serves as a preparatory lesson for Passover, which begins next week (footnote 16): that even when steeped in the deepest impurity represented by Egypt, if we focus on the divine in all we can not only escape the morass but indeed refashion it to serve the most sacred purpose. Like the valuable possessions the Israelites took from their Egyptian neighbors, which were eventually used to build the Mishkan, the ultimate dwelling-place for the Shechinah to shine in full glory. May this manifest in our daily lives even before Passover, starting today, amen!

Footnote 1: Though leprosy is the most common translation, it is in fact a term that includes a wider range of skin and other conditions.

Footnote 2: As indeed it was sometimes euphemistically called in centuries past.

Footnote 3: Eruvin 15b

Footnote 4: Literally: “a bad name.”

Footnote 5: As Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Defilement of Leprosy, 16:10), that tzara’at “is not a natural phenomenon, but is deemed a sign and wonder.”

Footnote 6: Like the verse in Psalms 92:13 “The Righteous… shall reach up like a cedar.”

Footnote 7: Its Hebrew name, Ezov, is generically used for all grass.

Footnote 8: Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.

Footnote 9: Such as in Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim.

Footnote 10: Genesis 2:10

Footnote 11: Indeed the gematria for “the leper” (המצורע) is the same as “chaos” (תהו): both equal 411 (– from Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Shneersohn, father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe).

Footnote 12: Leviticus 14:2

Footnote 13: Proverbs 18, 21

Footnote 14: Talmud Nedarim 64b

Footnote 15: See Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov on this Parsha, end of section 1, though explained there somewhat differently.

Footnote 16: This week’s Shabbat is called “Shabbat HaGadol,” which commemorates the last Shabbat in Egypt.