Why These Two Readings?
Last week’s reading, Shemini, began with the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu. They obviously did something wrong in what was to be the inauguration of the tabernacle (mishkan). Whatever it was—bringing an improper incense offering into the tabernacle, or doing so when intoxicated, or yet something else—their misstep was immediately punished: a “fire came forth from God” and they died on the spot.
Next week’s reading, Aḥarei Mot, picks up where last week’s left off: In fact, its first verse reports that God spoke to Moses “after the death (aḥarei mot) of Aaron’s two sons.” This leads to an obvious question. What are the two intervening readings—this week’s Tazria‘ and Metzora‘—doing there? Logically, Shemini ought to have been followed immediately by Aḥarei Mot. The readings of Tazria‘ and Metzora‘, should have been put someplace else. The answer to this seemingly trivial question is actually quite important.
The death of Nadab and Abihu was not only a personal tragedy for them and their family; it raised a crucial question for all of Israel. What do we do when someone dies suddenly in the sacred tabernacle or, later on, in the Jerusalem temple? The tabernacle/temple was deemed to be nothing less than God’s earthly habitation, the holiest spot on earth. As such, it had to be protected from any form of impurity, and there was no greater impurity than the presence of a dead body in God’s sanctuary.
And yet, as the bumper-sticker has it, “Impurity happens.” Despite all the caution exercised by priests and Levites as well as ordinary Israelites present in the temple, you could never be absolutely sure that some source of impurity might not somehow find its way inside and thereby render the sanctuary impure. In fact, it was not just ritual impurity (contact with dead bodies, or various other sources deemed impure) that needed to be ritually purged, but human sinfulness as well.
The day on which the purging took place was Yom Kippur, and the procedure is described in Aḥarei Mot. We think of Yom Kippur as the fast day par excellence, a day of introspection and a time of forgiveness. It certainly is all these things, but its focus, and the significance of all that the High Priest did in the temple, was connected to the need to return the temple to a state of absolute purity, as it was in the beginning.
So the answer to the question of why the readings of Tazria‘ and Metzora‘ occur where they do is simple. Having described how Nadab and Abihu died and thereby rendered the tabernacle impure, the Torah then goes on to discuss other sources or transmitters of impurity: animals, birds, and fish that may not be eaten; a man’s seminal emission or other discharge; mothers during the period immediately following their giving birth; people suffering from various diseases; and more. These subjects are treated in Tazria‘ and Metzora‘. Then, having discussed all these, the Torah goes on to detail the way the sanctuary is to be restored to its pristine state of purity.
What is remarkable in all this is the very concept of impurity. On the one hand, impurity is inevitable: babies have to be born, and their mothers unavoidably become impure in the process; indeed, men and women procreate in order to have children, thereby contracting impurity; in addition, people contract all sorts of impurity quite unwillingly and simply in the course of nature. On the other hand, impurity and God’s holiness cannot coexist, which is why the sanctuary must regularly be purged.
And what is holiness? The word for holy, kadosh, is not easily defined, but at the most basic level, it refers to God first and foremost: God is supremely kadosh. But holiness is contagious: it passes automatically from God to His dwelling, the temple or mikdash (literally, the holy place), as well as to the kelei kodesh, the interior furnishings and implements of the sanctuary.
This week’s combined readings of Tazria‘ and Metzora‘ serve to make clear that impurity is in a way the antitype not just of purity, but of holiness. Like holiness, impurity is contagious, attaching to people’s bodies and other objects which, therefore, have to be ritually purged.
Yet neither holiness nor impurity is merely concrete and physical. For example, the Sabbath is also described as kadosh; somehow, but not physically, God’s holiness is held to permeate that day. And Israel is likewise described as God’s holy people, attached to God by bonds altogether invisible. In the same way, impurity has a non-physical side. Specifically, people’s sins cling to them and have to be purged as well—and on the same day of physical purgation, Yom Kippur.
In this sense, then, impurity’s opposite is holiness, and our bodies are thus a bit like the temple of old. We acquire impurity in the most down-to-earth ways—as Tazria‘ and Metzora‘ detail—but our sins also cling to us in some analogous but non-physical way. To be a fit home for God’s holiness, these likewise have to be purged.