Tazria-Metzora: A Lesson in Humility

Each week we invite a different liberal Jewish thought leader or rabbi to write a “Taste of Torah” on the weekly portion. To receive LAASOK’s Taste of Torah by email each week, subscribe to our newsletter.

This week’s author is Rabbi Neal Katz.

Neal Katz has been the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, TX since his ordination from HUC-JIR in 2003. Neal is also a musician, he is active on a number of local Boards, and he teaches an “Introduction to Judaism” course at the University of Texas at Tyler. 

This week we find ourselves reading from a double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. These portions are famously difficult to process, as they deal with skin diseases, pure and impure people (along with their clothing and houses), and the remedies for these problems. But hidden in the text is a beautiful teaching that I will come back to in a moment.

Every fall, my congregation in Texas holds a special Shabbat service to honor our pets. It’s cute. It’s a brief service (in our courtyard) where people show up with their beloved pets and have an opportunity to introduce them to the community.

I have always been intrigued by one of the readings in that service which says we should feed our pets before ourselves. The reference comes from the Talmud (Gittin 62a):

“Rav Yehuda … says: It is prohibited for a person to eat anything until he gives food to his animal.”

And as a source for this, he references Deuteronomy 11:5, “I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.”

Rav Yehuda notices that the Torah places the words in a specific order: provide grass for the cattle first – and then you, the person, can eat.

And, there are many places in the biblical texts that speak lovingly about the care of animals. Why were biblical writers and the Rabbis of the Talmud so interested in promoting this level of care and concern for our animals? Because they are God’s creatures. And as we are commanded to show them kindness, it can reflect our appreciation of God’s creation.

This is beautiful, but I felt that something deeper was going on here. And I found another connected teaching in a midrash on this week’s portion. From the Torah, we read two verses:

First: “These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures…” (Leviticus 11:46)

And only 4 verses later it reads: “When a woman becomes pregnant…” (Leviticus 12:2)

These are the kinds of texts that are easy to read right past. But in a midrash, Rabbi Simlai saw a beautiful message. He said, “Just like humanity’s formation was after that of beast, cattle, and bird, so too are the laws [of humanity] after those of beast, cattle, and bird, and that’s what is written…” (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1). He then goes on to reference these two Leviticus texts.

What’s going on here?

Rabbi Simlai was teaching that the mitzvot in the Torah appear in this specific order. Why? To keep us humble. It is a riff on the earlier midrash text. But this time, instead of promoting the holiness of the creatures, this midrash is suggesting the ordering of animals first and people second is an exercise in teaching us humility.

So not only are animals beloved as God’s creations, but they also offer us an opportunity to be humbled. What a beautiful message.

“So not only are animals beloved as God’s creations, but they also offer us an opportunity to be humbled. What a beautiful message.”

Let us use this week to appreciate the role that animals play in our own lives, both as reflections of God’s handiwork, and how they call us to be humble. Both are opportunities for holiness.

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