On Leprosy, Hair, and Yom ha’Atzmaut

Although I don’t generally post things like this, I think this is an idea that merits sharing outside of my school’s Torah publication. Enjoy! -A

As part of the process of re-purification of a metzora (a person who was stricken with tzaraat, leprosy), the metzora must shave all of his/her hair off before rejoining society and B’nei Yisrael’s encampment. Such an act is not, however, unique to the purification of the metzora — this idea is mentioned in other places, too. For example, when a nazir completes the time that he promised to be a nazir, his hair is also shaved off One can ask: why is hair so significant that it should be such an important part of the process of purification?

Last September, Lady Gaga dedicated a song from her latest album, entitled “Hair,” to Jamie Rodemeyer, a high school freshman who took his own life as the result of being mercilessly bullied. She explained that “Hair” was meant to be a metaphor for high school — in high school, she said, all you have is your identity, your own hair. Once you are stripped of that, you have nothing. Perhaps Lady Gaga, known for her eccentric clothing and hair, is right: one’s hair does seem to play a role in shaping a person’s identity. In literature, for example, hair (especially facial hair) is often used to symbolize masculinity. In Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, facial hair is used to symbolize masculinity, and the gruffness and subhuman nature often stereotypically associated with masculinity. When Rose, one of the female protagonists in the book, shaves her fiancee’s beard off, we draw a connection between his beard and masculinity, a defining part (up until that point) in his identity.

So we see how hair can be considered important to our identities. How does this, in turn, relate to the metzora? Perhaps, if we looked at this from a literary perspective, this is meant to be something to humiliate the metzora by, quite literally, “shaving” him of his masculinity.

However, I would like to look at this from a different perspective. In seventh grade, my Chumash teacher explained that the reason the halakhot of birth and the metzora are juxtaposed in the Torah is to emphasize the fact that one who is purified from tzaraat is considered to have been born anew, just like a newborn baby. The former metzora now is tasked with entering society as a new person, like a baby is to fashion a new life for him- or herself.

Perhaps the aspect of shaving a metzora‘s hair furthers this idea of renewal. In a way, it seems to be a physical manifestation of the metzora‘s rebirth and his or her reentering society as a new person, a baby. By shaving off the metzora‘s hair — his identity — we give the metzora a fresh start, a rebirth, of sorts. We allow the metzora to fashion a whole new identity for him- or herself, and allow the metzora to shed his old identity and whatever gave him or her tzaraat in the first place. We allow the metzora to reenter society, to continue the metaphor, with a completely new “hairstyle,” a new identity.

Today, Jews around the world celebreated Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. On May 5th, 1948, the Jewish people collectively “shaved their hair” and started anew, in a new land of their own. Despite the hardships that the 1930s and 40s brought upon European Jewry, these Jewish communities were able to find shelter in Israel after its establishment, developing new “hair,” a new society, in the process.