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Torah Talk with Rabbi Eliseo D. Rozenwasser

April 19, 2024

Shabbat Shalom!

How long did it take between the actual exodus from Egypt and the moment the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds? As much as there is no strong evidence in any of the sources, Jewish tradition indicates that the Israelites finished crossing the Sea of Reeds one week after they left Egypt.

The liturgy supports this assumption as on the first day of Passover we read what is called Pesach Mitzraim, the first Passover that the Children of Israel observed as they were still slaves in Egypt, while, on the seventh day, we read Shirat Hayam – the Song of the Sea.

This Shabbat’s Torah portion, Metzorah, seems to provide some symbolic support to this assumption. In addition, this Shabbat, being the one that precedes the observance of Passover is also referred to as Shabbat HaGadol. This appellation is in reference to the special Haftarah that we read this Shabbat, from the Prophet Malachi.

In Parshat Metzora in the Book of Leviticus, the Torah explains the purification process for one who has contracted tzara’at (usually translated as leprosy):

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying. This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. These shall be presented before the Adonai, with the man to be cleansed, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, by the priest who performs the cleansing. (Leviticus 14:1-11)

This narrative from the Book of Leviticus, connected with the leprosy instance, has many literary allusions to Pesach Mitzraim, as we have mentioned earlier, the first Pesach that the Children of Israel celebrated.

  1. There is the blood of the birds coloring the clean water—a reminder of the first plague in Egypt (blood).
  2. There is also hyssop being dipped into the blood and then spread over a piece of cedar wood- as a reminder of the Children of Israel painting their doorposts with blood in order to seek protection from the Malakh ha-mavet, the Angel of Death, as it is about to strike every Egyptian first born.
  3. Similarly, after a period of seven days, the metzora (the one affected by leprosy) is allowed to re-enter the camp and rejoin the community. This echoes the seven days of the Pesach holiday and the seven days between the last plague and the Crossing of the Sea, leading into a safer and more permanent freedom.

We cannot have a full understanding of this section unless we can answer the following question: what death is the metzora being purified or redeemed from, in our reading in the Book of Leviticus?

There is somewhat of a consensus among the Sages that the metzora suffers a kind of spiritual death in that he/she becomes ta’meh (spiritually impure) and needs to leave the community. After a period of seven days, the metzora experiences a rebirth and can rejoin the community.

The seven days of the Passover holiday help us commemorate the time when we emerged as a community, as a nation, after crossing the Sea of Reeds.

When in the Hagadah we recite:

“In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if s/he left Mitzraim,”perhaps we should think about the times when we have experienced a spiritual death—the times we have done those things that have caused a part of our souls to die, or simply anything that stands in the way of our relationship with God.

Pesach gives us a time to not only remember our physical redemption from Egypt but also gives us the opportunity, each year, to experience a spiritual rebirth-- a rebirth that connects us with our people and, at the same time, strengthens our bounds with God.

With every Pesach, God gives us the tools, as alluded to in the Parshat Tzara’at narrative, to redeem ourselves spiritually and join our community to pray for the ultimate redemption. This ultimate redemption will only be achieved in the times of the Mesiah, which, interestingly enough, will be alluded to during the Haftarah reading for the last day of Passover.

Shabbat Shalom and have a Zissen Pesah!

Rabbi Eliseo D. Rozenwasser

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784