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Parshat Tazria-Metzora

Three camps

The division between the three camps in the desert- the Camp of the Shechina (Divine Presence), the Camp of the Levites, and the Camp of the Israelites- is not merely a practical and territorial division. The division reflects a hierarchal relationship between the camps based on their proximity to the center, the innermost section. The farther one gets from the center the “fainter” the sanctity grows until one is “outside the camp,” the area reserved for the metzora (a person afflicted with tzara’at, a Biblical skin disease commonly mistranslated as leprosy). The division between the camps and their sanctity is the basis for the Torah law that a metzora is sent out of all three of the camps, a zav (a man impure through genital discharge) is sent out of two camps, and a tamei nefesh (a person impure because of contact with a dead body) is only sent out of the Camp of the Shechina. (see Bamidbar 5, 1-4) 

This description conveys a very precise image of the desert encampment- one camp encompassing another, with a clear focal point in the center that radiates influence onto its surroundings. This portrayal makes sense, it is one that we are familiar with from many other structures, in our homes and in our lives. Most homes have an interior room that is more exclusive- the couple’s bedroom- then perhaps a few other less intimate rooms, and finally there is the living area for entertaining guests. A similar dynamic exists between ones home and the outside world- there is private domain, the courtyard, and the public domain. The less private a space is the less it is used for intimate and private things. At the same time, as we venture further out from the center we are exposed to interactions with a wider segment of the population, our experience includes even those who are distant. Conversely, as one moves further toward the intimate interior it is more important for them to be conscientious, to maintain purity of mind and heart. The megillah of Shir Hashirim that we just read on Pesach intricately and thoroughly explores this analogy between intimacy and holiness. 

These three domains- those of the Shechinah, the Levites, and the Israelites- also parallel the circles that each and every one of us belongs to, from familial to national. A person’s needs are spread out and divided between the different circles and the borders drawn between each domain. The center is so important because it draws our focus, at the same time it also defines everything outside as foreign and distant. This description of the Israelite camp depicts all the nations outside as surrounding the Jewish spiritual center. In turn, this model creates a change in mindset aimed at gathering the people around a joint ethos that breeds solidarity and unity and also identifies what is “other.”

There was another arrangement to the camp that preceded its organization into sanctified center and periphery. When the people first ventured into the desert an angel of God traveled before or behind the Camp of Israel. (Shmot 14, 19) Later on, after the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe pitched his tent outside of the camp “and it was that all who sought God would depart to the tent of meeting outside the camp.” (Shmot 33, 7) All of these situations describe a camp structure with a clear boundary- you’re either inside or you’re outside. Being outside means being separated from the center of activity. At the same time this structure emphasizes a desire to move forward, to be different, instead of looking inside for strength. It’s the opposite of the change in mindset that happened in the world with Copernicus’s discovery that the sun, and not the earth, is in the center. 

According to some of the commentaries, the tamei meit, zav, and metzora are not only actual figures that are sent out of the camp, they are also symbolic representations of various social problems. The tamei meit represents death, the zav loose sexual morals, and the metzora symbolizes the sin of lashon hara (evil speech, rumor-mongering). One example of such an approach is found in the commentary of the Kli Yakar: 

And if he sinned through lashon hara he must dwell in solitude, just as he [through his evil speech] separated between man and his fellow; and if he was not sent out of all three camps he would not be alone.

“And every zav,” whose emanations symbolize that he engages in immoral sexual behavior, which is the reason he has the zav emanations, and he is sent out of the holy Camp of Shechinah, and outside of the Camp of Levites which also has sanctity, and every place that has sanctity cannot tolerate erva (sexual immorality), except for the Camp of Israel which does not have so much holiness.

“And every tamei nefesh” this indicates that within himself he has impaired judgment and that he is not careful not to defile himself through the human body by [figuratively] spilling blood, which is as if it touches the image of God. Therefore it is appropriate that he would be sent away from the Camp of Shechinah because he has damaged the honor of the Shechina. (Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 8) 

The Kli Yakar and other commentaries who take a similar approach view the people sent out of the camp as representative of typical problems that may occur in a community based on ever changing and widening social circles. According to this approach death represents damage to the image of God and to human dignity: 

“Tumat meit is parallel to dignity as it says (Kohelet 8, 8) ‘There is no control on the day of death,’ which is the quintessential loss of dignity…” (Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, Dover Tzedek, pg. 29) 

Human dignity is most vulnerable in intimate, private spaces, in the place that a person takes off his clothing. As he goes further into his house he sheds all his external descriptions and honorifics. This poses a grave threat to the person and his humanity. Inside his home he stands exposed; he has none of his outer trappings hiding him or defining him. Therefore a tamei nefesh is sent out of the Camp of Shechina. 

Typically, the problem of sexual impropriety is greatest in those places where strangers meet. Temptations of this type happen in spaces where people interact and develop bonds- at work, school, and other places a person frequents. This wider circle that is somewhere in between our public and private lives can function as a breeding ground for these inappropriate relationships. Therefore the zav is sent out of the Camp of Levites. 

The metzora is sent out of all three camps; the widest circles present us with other challenges. In public spaces we do not really get to know other people for who they are; our interactions with others don’t leave much behind besides a vague feeling of basic solidarity. In the public sphere our main concern is that a complete stranger can be harmed through the spread of personal information and fragments of truth, a grimace accompanied by an insult or sarcastic comment that spread through society infecting people with their bile and destroying reputations and lives. The metzora, the libeler, causes friction and division. He harms the basic fabric that binds our society together and so he is sent out of all three camps to dwell in solitude.


When a person is sent out of all three camps he is sent back into the situation that existed before the circular structure of the desert encampment was established. He is given a different option, one where holiness is not in the center, but rather beyond him, somewhere else. This relocation is not merely a punishment; it is also the immediate consequence of his misuse of the centrifugal structure of the camp. 


Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780