This week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, can teach us about restoring balance both to creation and human society. According to the Jewish tradition, tzaraat, a skin disease described in this week's portion, is understood to result from loshon hara (gossip, or other derogatory or harmful speech). The portion describes the ritual healing of a person who has contracted tzaraat. To understand this healing in context we will examine a key cause - the sin of loshon hara - and the particulars of its cure. We will look at the plants used in the purification and how this teaches us about appreciating and protecting the earth’s botanical diversity and healing potential.
Speech represents the articulation of identity or belief, the generative force of creation. Within Jewish taxonomy, human beings are referred to as “medabrim” or “speaking ones." Our power of logic-based communication distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Our words are powerful. Through prayer and blessing we have the potential to transform our reality and the world around us. This effect of speech is evident in the laws pertaining to tzaraat. R’ Yehoshua ben Levi explains that the metzorah (person with tzaarat) is required to dwell outside the camp in solitude because their speech caused a separation between people. Therefore, the metzorah’s spiritual healing must occur in a state of separateness.
When our speech becomes blemished, a strong remedy is required to heal it.
The remedy described in the portion of Metzorah
comes about through a cleansing immersion process involving two wild birds, a red wool string and samples from two plant species: the cedar tree and the low-lying hyssop. The healing process is clearly spiritual - the plants are not ingested, merely held. And yet, the Torah requires their inclusion in the process. We can understand from this that G-d is reminding us of the curative powers of plants, and is invoking the symbolism found in the natural world to aid the spiritual healing of a person.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that the ritual healing of the metzorah
is aimed at reintegrating the individual into the social community. The metzorah
's harmful words disturbed the social fabric that binds the community together, and therefore the metzorah
must go through a reintegration process involving banishment to the field outside human encampment, and a cleansing ritual that brings in elements of the natural world.
For centuries, Jewish sages understood the birds and plants involved in
the healing ritual to carry symbolic lessons through the nature of their
being. Rashi (France, 1040-1105) explained that two wild birds are used
in this purification ritual because birds are constantly chirping and
twittering, alluding to the mindless chattering of one who slanders
others. The Sfas Emes (from the early 1800’s) hints that the birds
represent both the harm caused through negative speech, and the powerful
expression of beneficial, life-giving speech.
The Sfas Emes also explains that the two plants used in the healing
ritual - cedar and hyssop - represent two poles of being brought into
harmony through the actions of the cleansing ritual. Because cedar grows
so tall and hyssop is a lowly shrub, together they represent the
highest and lowest types of plant life.
Symbolism and representation are often the most important part of any
healing ritual involving plants. Herbal and homeopathic healing
traditions follow a practice of recognizing the healing power of herbs
based on the physical qualities of the plant, such as their shape,
texture, color or resemblance to an organ. In homeopathy this is
referred to as the “law of similars,” and the principle that “like cures
like” is a profound one in many natural systems of healing. We are
reflected in nature, and nature is reflected in us.
In the same vein, the Sfas Emes comments that the cedar is associated
with pride and haughtiness, which lead a person to speak loshon hara.
Just as the cedar is distanced above the earth, harmful speech comes
from feeling “above” or distanced from others. In contrast, hyssop grows
low to the ground. The kohen (priest) sprinkles water on the metzorah
using a bundle of both these plants during the healing ritual to be
reminded that though loftiness is part of creation, it should be
countered with humility.
Because it is one of the few times that healing is discussed in the
Torah, and certainly the most detailed instance, the case of the metzorah
has become a paradigm for Jewish sickness and healing. The central use
of two specific plant species in the ritual is very important. Their
mere presence at the ceremony is enough to reap their curative powers,
probably due to the powerful symbolism described above. From this we can
learn the profound importance of ensuring the survival of the vast
diversity of plants on this earth.
The use of plants for healing is an ancient and time-tested practice.
Exploration into the rainforest and other areas of great biodiversity
has yielded riches for the medical world. Indigenous peoples around the
world maintain traditions rich in knowledge about the healing and
curative powers of their local plants. Medicinal knowledge as well as
agricultural practices can be learned from similar studies. We must
remember that these plant foods and medicines are part of G-d’s gift to
us to use for healing and result in a responsibility to pass on as
resources for future generations. Like the metzorah
, we may need their presence to stay healthy.
G-d has provided us with abundance and healing through the natural
world. These gifts are to be found in the specific plants and the
diversity of uses in healing and nutrition. Plant medicines come to use
in many different styles of healing. They are prepared in teas,
tinctures, poultices and capsules, are used in cooking as seasonings and
vegetables, as sources of inspiration for lab-synthesized medical
products, as fragrance or oils in aromatherapy and in micro-doses in
homeopathic remedies or flower essences. In the case of the metzorah
the Torah requires their presence for the powerful symbolism they
offer. The plants become our teachers, balancing specific energies and
sharing metaphors for growth that impact both body and psyche.
Our role in creation is symbiotic. We are both caretakers of nature and
we can also be cared for and healed through nature. Like the opposing
natures of the cedar and the hyssop, we contain both extremes. Through
positive speech we can build relationships within both human communities
and our natural environment that will support and encourage connection
Suggested Action Item:
• Try planting your own herb garden, preferably with species native to your location.
Ramona Rubin received a Master’s
degree in public health epidemiology at the University of Michigan where
she worked with Michigan Integrative Medicine. Her focus is on
connections between human health and the environment.