Leading Idea: Teaching Challenging Texts

Leading Idea:  Teaching Challenging Texts

Parshat Tazria-Metzora  is a challenging text -as such, it offers us a number of teaching  opportunities:

(i) the opportunity to deal with what is usually considered a ‘difficult text’ – its difficulty lies in:

  • the distance the subject seems to have from contemporary life,
  • in the fact that it is not exactly clear which disease or sets of diseased these terms  refer to (  se’eth שְׂאֵת, sappachath סַפַּחַת, bahereth בַהֶרֶת and Tzara’at צָרָעַת) – for further information you might like to go to the Encyclopedia Judaica’s entry on Tzara’at
  •  to its technical dryness of delivery
  • and added to this, is its association with Miriam’s punishment of Tzara’at.

(ii) the  opportunity to model a different way in which Jewish tradition interprets Biblical text.  This is to see the Torah as if all was simultaneously present – where the meaning of one passage gains its meanings through other passages in which the same issue is dealt with or the same events mentioned.  The section on Tzara’at in this parashah is often interpreted in light of Miriam’s Tzara’at as ‘punishment’ for Lashon hara (Bamidbar 12:1-15).  Reading Vayikra with this text in mind we might ask why it is the Kohen who examines scally conditions of the skin (why is the spiritual leader rather than someone with medical knowledge?) and why recovery from such a state requires ritual offering (including the intriguing requirement of bringing two birds as offerings – one to be slaughtered and one to be set free). Linking tzara’at with the ‘moral disease’ of lashon hara – speaking evil of others,  or gossiping – is one way of responding to these questions. This is reinforced by the third text from Devarim, which links  what happened to Miriam back to the role of the Levites in parshat Tazria-Metzora

Reading all three texts with your students  is  a lot of reading
For Primary school: As a strategy, you might want to read the first text from Vayikra around the circle, then pause to take a few questions, then have the teacher read the next two texts (from Bamidbar and Devarim), or tell the story from Bamidbar in their own words  and then read the third, and then raise more questions as a group.
For Middle School and High School: As a strategy, you might want to read the first text from Vayikra around the circle, then pause to take a few questions, then either continue to read the next text in the circle (from Bamidbar),or nominate  characters  (Moses, Aaron, Miriam, God, narrator) and have them read it as a dramatic reading, and then read the final text from Devarim together before turning to raise more questions as a group.

(iii)  Another opportunity presented by this text – or perhaps a challenge – concerns teaching this text in its context.  In order that this parashah has meaning for the reader, we need to check that our students understand many of the terms that are mentioned, and of the relationships  between the different  characters. This will require stopping during the reading and checking that students have the context in which to understand what is going on. This is especially the case when all three texts are used together.  For example, the passage in Bamidbar, dealing with Aaron and Miriam’s action,  may require narrative context to be given (where and when is this taking place? What is the tent of meeting?). In the case of  the short text from Devarim insight can be gained by looking at its immediate textual context  which deals with moral behaviors (reinforcing the connection between of tzara’at  and moral/spiritual issues).