Parshas Tazria dedicates much of its time to a discussion of the Metzora, widely but inaccurately translated as leper, who suffers from Tzaras. One of the more peculiar laws of this spiritual affliction is that someone who has been quarantined as a Metzora is deemed to be getting worse if healthy flesh emerges, but pure if his entire body turns white.
A similar paradox is that of the Red Cow whose sprinkling purifies one who came in contact with a corpse, yet renders the sprinkler impure. This is considered a Hok, a law whose reasoning utterly eludes us, as it did King Shlomo, who reportedly aspired to understand it, but failed to do so.
Why does a man become 'impure' when he appears to be recovering and 'pure' when his whole body seems afflicted? Why does the act of rendering an impure man, pure, make a pure man, impure?
The nature of purity and impurity remains beyond our understanding. The paradox calls to mind a more familiar one, why do good people suffer while bad people prosper?
The old "Tzaddik ve'ra lo, ve'rasha ve'tov lo" (a righteous man suffers and a wicked man prospers) is every bit as difficult to understand as the Metzora or the Para Aduma, the Red Cow. And yet we think that we understand it better because we can grasp the subject matter. We may accept that we do not understand the spiritual mysteries of purity and impurity, but we assume that we do understand good and evil, and can judge the ways of G-d in this regard.
And yet in all of these areas, we are only seeing part of a cycle. And that cycle is only a part of G-d's plan.
The paradoxes of purity and impurity remind us that some of G-d's ways are inexplicable to us because we lack the perspective to understand them. This is no less true of human life, a subject on which we have no perspective, yet think we do, than of the Red Cow and the Metzora, on which we are willing to concede that we have no perspective.
Knowing what G-d wants from us is not the same thing as knowing what He wants to do and why. This is a mistake that we often risk making in our view of the world. We are ready to accept that purity and impurity is a mystical subject that we cannot grasp, but we are convinced that we know what our lives and the lives of our neighbors ought to be like. And yet our lack of perspective means that the larger world cannot help but be a paradox to us no matter how we might strive to understand it.
Life and death, suffering and joy, are as much paradoxes as the means of making the pure into the impure and the impure into the pure. We can never truly understand them. All we can do is accept them.
Tzaras mimics an illness, but it is not a disease. It is a spiritual affliction. It crosses from an area that we think we understand to an area that we do not. Likewise the Red Cow and its ashes come into play with death, a subject we think we know, but that we are quickly forced to confess is a mystery.
The paradox takes us from a subject that we think we know and then defies our understanding of it.
Faith begins with learning to accept the limitations of our understanding. The paradox is a sign post warning us that the road ahead requires faith. Disease and death often serve as such sign posts. Purity and impurity are tightly wrapped around the functions of life, from birth to illness to death. They remind us that though we experience the world and live in it, there is a limit to our understanding of it. We cannot truly understanding the meaning of our lives. We can only have faith that G-d's plan will help give meaning and dignity to our birth, our suffering and our joys, and our death.