Shabbat Tazria Metzora: Tzaraat and Sex Trafficking

The double parashah of Tazria-Metzorah this Shabbat draws us into the strange realm of negaim, blemishes of the body, clothing and even homes that signal impurity and require urgent attention. This topic was considered to be one of the most complicated areas of Jewish law in antiquity, and it remains challenging for us today. We often associate this material with contemporary issues of illness and healing. It teaches the responsibility of religious leaders to visit the afflicted and assist them on their journey back to health. (If you are interested, listen to my podcast about Ketubot 77, which features the heroic Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi’s care for those afflicted by the dread disease “ra’atan.”)

In the parashah there is an arresting image at 14:33-38 in which a homeowner reports that something “like negaim” has appeared in his house. The Mishnah (Negaim 12:5) derives that even if the homeowner is a great sage, he should not condemn his own house as afflicted, but rather should report that the mark “looks like” a nega—so that the relevant authority, the priest, can determine the diagnosis. Moreover, the Mishnah notices that the Torah instructs that the house should be emptied before the priest’s visit. Why? According to this Mishnah, the Torah was “concerned” (hasah) about the financial loss that would result from the priest declaring the entire contents of the house to be impure. 

In an unusual homiletical flourish, the Mishnah concludes that if the Torah was concerned with even inexpensive items, all the more so with expensive items. And if the Torah sought to minimize the designation of property as impure, how much  more so with the people in the home—that they should be spared the diagnosis of impurity. And if the Torah was concerned with any householder—even a wicked one—then all the more so with the righteous. Thus the sages of the Mishnah teach that the Torah wants its representatives to administer ritual matters with compassion and leniency. This beautiful teaching never ceases to be relevant.

Yet the sages also have a harsher line of interpretation of this passage in Leviticus. Why did this house become afflicted in the first place? After all, in verse 34, God says “I shall afflict a house…” Now, why would God do that? In tractate Arkhin (16a) the sages claim that this particular affliction comes upon the home of a thief. He has stolen property and hidden it within his home. When the priest arrives and empties all of his possessions into the front yard, the entire town can see what this man has taken. This interpretation views the emptying of the house not as a measure of compassion for the owner, but rather as an exposure and shaming of the guilty. The appearance of a mark upon this house is an opportunity to expose social evil and to purify not the home but the person and the community that he has damaged with his crime. The Torah’s expression “they shall empty out the house,” was later employed by our ancient liturgists in the prayer “al ha’nissim” for Hanukah—the Hasmoneans “emptied your palace and purified your Temple.” Sometimes the only way to purify is to purge; removing the corruption and rot within is the first step toward healing.

It is this second sense of our passage that came to mind last night when I attended the premiere of a new documentary film called “Specks of Dust.” It tells the story of Guria, a remarkable NGO based in Varanasi, India, that seeks to disrupt sex trafficking and forced prostitution. Guria runs a school for hundreds of the children of sex workers, seeking to prevent the girls from becoming prostitutes and the boys from becoming pimps. These children are educated in art, literature, math, ethics… and kindness. They are fed, comforted and made to feel valued and safe. This program alone is an enormous accomplishment, but Guria also engages in risky “rescue operations.” Their staff observes brothels that house minors, filming them, and then works with the police to raid the brothels and rescue the girls. This is not simple since the police and even magistrates are often in collusion with the pimps, and it is not always possible to find and rescue the girls.

Watching footage of the rescue operations, as the Guria staff encircle the girls and lead them from their house of captivity, reminded me of the priest who approaches the home of a suspected thief and orders that everything within be removed and exposed to the light of day. Hidden within these homes is not stolen property but stolen people, and stolen lives. The Guria staff provide the girls with scarves to cover their faces so that they not be further shamed. Shame should be reserved for the evil people who have enslaved them. 

My daughter spent last year living in Varanasi and volunteering for Guria, and she urged our family to attend the screening with the two directors, who had likewise volunteered at Guria. I’m glad that we did. The founder of Guria is an incredibly brave and determined man named Ajeet Singh, and his wife Manju joined him in leading this organization with incredible moral and physical courage. But it is their little daughter Barish who gives the most power to the film. Ajeet and Manju are aware that they endanger not only themselves but also their daughter by continuing to expose and oppose the criminals who kidnap and enslave girls the same age as their daughter. With her poignant questions to her parents, and the implicit contrast between her loving home and the horrors inflicted upon other girls, Barish opens our eyes and hearts to the terrible plague of sex trafficking. 

Barish, Manju and Ajeet were present and spoke at the screening, and I am sure that all present felt challenged and inspired by their example of principle and courage. While few of us will have the opportunity to engage in a literal rescue operation, we can open our eyes and look at what is happening, not only in India, but around the world, including in America. You can watch the trailer here, and learn more about this issue in many places—all you need to do is look. On a Shabbat dedicated to noticing maladies of the skin, clothing and home, and not looking away, we must become attuned to those kept captive in our own day. 

ויקרא פרק יד 

  (לג)   וַיְדַבֵּר יְדֹוָד אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר:   (לד)   כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת  בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם:   (לה)   וּבָא אֲשֶׁר לוֹ הַבַּיִת וְהִגִּיד לַכֹּהֵן לֵאמֹר כְּנֶגַע נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת:   (לו)   וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן  וּפִנּוּ   אֶת  הַבַּיִת בְּטֶרֶם יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַנֶּגַע וְלֹא יִטְמָא  כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת וְאַחַר כֵּן יָבֹא הַכֹּהֵן לִרְאוֹת אֶת הַבָּיִת:   (לז)   וְרָאָה אֶת הַנֶּגַע וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע בְּקִירֹת הַבַּיִת שְׁקַעֲרוּרֹת יְרַקְרַקֹּת אוֹ  אֲדַמְדַּמֹּת וּמַרְאֵיהֶן שָׁפָל מִן הַקִּיר:  (לח)   וְיָצָא הַכֹּהֵן מִן הַבַּיִת אֶל פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת וְהִסְגִּיר אֶת הַבַּיִת שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:

משנה מסכת נגעים פרק יב משנה ה 

 כיצד ראיית הבית ובא אשר לו הבית והגיד לכהן לאמר כנגע נראה לי בבית אפילו  תלמיד חכם ויודע שהוא נגע ודאי לא יגזור ויאמר נגע נראה לי בבית אלא כנגע נראה  לי בבית וצוה הכהן  ופנו   את  הבית (ובטרם יבא הכהן לראות את הנגע ולא יטמא כל  אשר בבית ואחר כך יבא הכהן לראות את הבית) ואפילו חבילי עצים ואפילו חבילי  קנים דברי רבי יהודה ר”ש אומר עסק הוא לפנוי אמר רבי מאיר וכי מה מטמא לו אם  תאמר כלי עציו ובגדיו ומתכותיו מטבילן והן טהורים על מה חסה התורה על כלי  חרסו ועל פכו ועל טפיו אם כך חסה התורה על ממונו הבזוי ק”ו על ממונו החביב אם  כך על ממונו ק”ו על נפש בניו ובנותיו אם כך על של רשע ק”ו על של צדיק:  

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ערכין דף טז עמוד א 

ועל  הגזל, דכתיב:  +ויקרא י”ד+   וצוה הכהן  ופנו   את  הבית, תנא: הוא כונס ממון שאינו שלו,  יבא הכהן ויפזר ממונו.  

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