Friday, April 12, 2019 /7 Nisan, 5779
Parashat M’tzora Leviticus 14:1-15:33
The ridge of the right ear… the right thumb… and the right big toe…
So goes a strange verse in this week’s Torah portion. We are reading a text describing the purification process for one who had a skin disease, possibly leprosy, which was conducted before allowing the person readmission into the camp and the community. The priest was to slaughter a lamb, and then, “The priest shall take some of the blood of the reparation offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being purified, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” (Lev. 14:14)
Clearly this is an odd, archaic ritual. It clearly did not effectuate any physical purification, and was highly symbolic and spiritual. Why place the blood on each of these places on the body, when the skin disease may have been on the back, the arm or anywhere else?
We don’t know. However, we can posit that the ear could remind the participants of the need to pay attention to instruction and messages, the thumb could remind that one must do rightly, and the toe could be a reminder that one should tread carefully. That all sounds benign, and fits a nice, mystical meaning for the Torah.
Yet, there is more. This was a ritual of readmitting a person who had been segregated or even ostracized, due either to contagion or the experience of being impure. The person clearly had been shunned or banished, but now was being readied for readmission into the kehila – the community.
Whatever the reason for the exclusion, and whatever the oddity of the ritual of re-entrance, the more profound message is the need for communities to bring in those who have been forced to be outside. In today’s world, there are too many who are outside, and are awaiting admission or readmission. We read daily of the travesty of persons at our national borders, some of whom travel daily for work, who are forced to be outside. We hear again and again of persons who are shunned due to sexual orientation, or gender identification. And, we know that skin color has been the bar to admission or readmission into our wider American kehila for centuries.
When considered this way, a little blood – or even olive oil – on the ear, the thumb and the big toe is not crazy at all. It is my sense that we have to make the processes and rituals of admission as easy as possible, and to lower restrictions and impediments to entrance into the communities which elevate and ennoble our lives. Perhaps, that was what the priest was truly undertaking in our seemingly crazy text.
Rabbi Doug Kohn