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Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33


Parashat M’tzora is usually read around the time of Passover, which means that it often coincides with our preparations for the quintessential Jewish festival. This spring cleaning is both an outer process of emptying our homes of the forbidden chametz (“puffed up” products made of leavened wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, and their derivatives) and an inner process of emptying ourselves of our own leavened ego, our own puffed-up-ness. The evening before the first night of Passover, it is traditional to inspect the house by candlelight and, with feather in hand, remove any leftover chametz. This ritual is akin to the High Priest’s inspection of a house afflicted by tzara’at, a mysterious plague, in this week’s Torah portion.

Tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy,” is first encountered in Torah as a skin affliction as we already defined it. But in this portion (Lev. 14:34 ff), it also applies to the walls of a house. How, then, are we to translate this term accurately? A biblical lexicon states that the root of the word tzara is synonymous with “prostrating” or “humbling” oneself. Perhaps this affliction is meant to cause one to humble oneself, to diminish the puffed-up-ness of one’s ego. Tzara’at may, therefore, be an outer symptom of a spiritual imbalance in which we are barricaded with closed-off heart behind the walls of our own ego, the skin of our separate sense of self.

In Jewish tradition, we define that state of imbalance as mitzrayim, from the root meaning “narrow” or “constricted.” It is from this constricted consciousness that we strive to break free as we celebrate our people’s escape from slavery in ancient Mitzrayim (Egypt). In the Exodus narrative, what initially closed Pharaoh’s heart was fear—fear that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous a people, a threat to his power and a drain on the limited resources of his kingdom. Spiritual teachers advise that when we revisit the story every Passover, we concentrate on how our own inner Moses can liberate us from the hardened heart of our inner Pharaoh. Like the biblical Pharaoh, our egos tend to hold a scarcity consciousness that compels us to pursue the largest slice of a perceived ever-shrinking finite pie so that we can have more and be more than anyone else.

And so, our rabbis teach, a counter-measure to the closed-ness of our inner Pharaoh’s fearful heart is to cultivate the character trait that stands in opposition to it. Rather than fighting or trying to fix our inner Pharaoh, which would only strengthen it, a more effective measure is to build up our inner Moses. Against the impulse to guard our own interests, the rabbis prescribe the practice of nedivut halev, generosity of the heart. The very act of giving has an impact on our hearts, and an ongoing, repetitive practice will leave its mark on our psyche. With each act of giving we become more charitable, more compassionate, more merciful, and more loving. Time, talent, resources—any gift that we share with others—tames our grasping inner Pharaoh and helps pave the way out of our narrow concerns and onto the transformative pathway of self-liberation.