This Is the Teaching of the Metzora

This shall be the teaching of the Metzora, zot tih’ye torat ha-metzora — Vayikra 14:1

He was accustomed to the close reading of texts, but on that day he sat with eyes that had never seen before and watched words on the page before him grow legs and dance, legs became wings, and words flew off the page like pigeons off of cobblestones. Words so free and high flying that from that day on he fell under their spell and became a pursuer of words. Words so elusive and spellbinding that he became a detective; words were his clues.

On that day, he sat in his fifth floor walk-up where he lived and worked and read from the book of Leviticus. He read the clue words: zot tih’ye torat ha-metzora, and he stopped. The words began to change for him. They grew legs and scampered over one another like mice. Then the words separated like mitosis and he read: ha-motzei ra instead of ha-metzora, he read “revealer of evil” instead of “the metzora” and he got no further that day than this one singularly devastating clue: the one word that had become two.

The clue was a summons but it had yet to be disclosed to him what it meant. He knew he was being sent, but did not know where. In his hand he fingered an unlit, wilted Lucky; he was determined not to smoke that day. The Lucky wagged in his hand like a sixth finger. He sat with his feet up on his desk, searching his experience for the dark irreducibility of his summons: the revealer of evil. He saw some wickedness, he saw great imperfection, he saw the best of dreams smashed to smithereens, but not evil.

He searched his experience of the world but found nothing that resonated like the evil for which he felt he had been called to reveal. It was at times like these that he demonstrated the powers of detection that set him apart from the guild detectives, who did not recognize the holiness of the task for which they had been called. It was also at times like these that he was tempted to light that Lucky.

He saw not only the grandeur of his job, but the folly of it, the folly of his lone attempt to penetrate a reality beyond his ken and control. Partially because he had trained himself for nothing else, partially out of the presentiment of a life of an exceedingly noble variety, partially because he liked to live dangerously, he was willing to devote himself to the task nonetheless.

He was good at it. Like every good detective, when the clues were especially impenetrable, he demonstrated the qualities of investigation with which he had been blessed. “God may have given us the nuts,” he would say, “but God didn’t crack them.” He had trained himself to turn the world upside down by standing on his head. It was his business.

Because he was willing to turn himself inside out or stand on his head if he had to, God’s own detective often cracked clues which left the guild detectives bewildered. There were no simple answers; the answer can’t be right if it’s simple, he used to say.

In the great tradition of kabbalists and jazzmen who play the saxophone, the detective was attentive to the bustling textural and tonal variety beneath surfaces. It was the rhythms and tones lurking beneath the obvious he heard, “and once you hear that,” he would say, “you never hear the obvious again.”

It was because of these highly developed methods of detection that God’s own detective went searching for the evil he had been called to reveal within, in the dark shadows lurking in his own self. There he descended.

In the darkest and most silent moment of his descent, God’s own detective came to the blood-dark waters, from which arose the slow-moving but methodical angels of destruction, creaking at the joints, large mounds of wrestlers. To a faintly beating drum in the distance, God’s own detective locked himself in a death-wrestle with them. Just as they had almost wrestled him into the waters from which they had arisen like night, he spoke the clue-words of the Psalmist: Save me, O God, for the waters are come into my soul (Psalm 69:2). At that moment, the right arm of God was extended, and God’s own detective found the courage to take hold of it.

He was pulled out as if from a well, from his death-wrestle with all that is fragmented, disintegrating, chaotic, death-dealing, but still, not evil. He felt closer to his summons but still not the revealer of evil for which he had been called. He understood the clue-words of R. Yossi (Hag. 12b): Alas for people that see, but know not what they see, they stand, but know not on what they stand. The earth rests on pillars, pillars on waters, waters on mountains, mountains on wind, wind on the storm. The storm, the vertiginous and terminal, the blood-dark waters of dissolution; the storm is suspended on the arms of the Holy One, as it is said,” And underneath are the everlasting arms (Deut. 33:27).

He had descended into the storm of the dissolution of his own self, and lifted up by the everlasting arms, came back to tell the tale. For that he felt a gratitude without measure, and whenever God’s own detective felt that way, he prayed.

He often prayed alone in his office. The old logo of a former tenant on the door, East Asia Trading Company, guarded him from interruption and mistaken callers. He began to recite the prayers. He felt the terrible weight of his summons being released, and by the time he reached the Kedushah, he was filled with an overwhelming sense of awe and well being.

He ascended to the top of the Throne of Glory. He saw the perspiration on the faces of the angels who were laboring before the Holy One. The angels spread their wings and under their sheltering protection he ducked the river of fire that emerged from God’s Holy Throne.

He spread his own arms like wings, and in the language of the angels he whispered, kadosh kadosh kadosh.

He spoke the words over and over – holy holy holy. He gobbled them up like a handful of raisins and he felt himself being released from the now oppressive summons to which he had been called.

Like all creations in Nature whose purposes are certain, like leaves pushing through leaves to sunlight, God’s own detective surrendered, released himself from his unholy responsibility, ha-motzei ra, the revealer of evil, and turned it over. He continued praying in an ecstasy unmatched in his prayer existence. He was off the case.

But like all good detectives, he couldn’t quite give it up. Even when he wanted to, he couldn’t drop the case. In a posture of obvious eligibility, God’s own detective sat in his office, waiting for the phone to ring and watching the sign flash on and off outside his window.

He saw her profile through the smoky glass door of his office, outside of which she paused to collect herself. She didn’t bother knocking.

She came in like fresh air. She asked for his help. She told him a story of such wickedness, deceit, and corruption that it made his ears tingle to listen to it.

“Maybe this is the case I’ve been waiting for,” he said, and he told her the story of the clue of the one word that had become two.

Her story was raw, empty of mystery, only the brute facticity of evil acts of evil people. He saw in her story the irreducibility of evil that he could not find in his own experience.

These were words that had ceased to be clues. Her story pointed to nothing beyond itself. It was the evil acts of evil people. No excuses, no motivation, evil not done out of ignorance or out of lack of self consciousness, it was not evil done in the name of God, or in the service of a greater goal. This was evil for which there were no excuses left. He knew then that he was not free to relinquish the task.

“I’ll take the case,” he said, getting up and gathering his trench coat from the sofa on which he slept. “I know a nice little diner where I take my messages and business meetings. We can talk there.”

He closed the door of the office behind them, threw away the frayed Lucky, and headed for the stairs. Now part of a holy opposition of two, not yet in love (that would come later), but reaffirming his original summons, ha-motzei ra, the revealer of evil, was on the case.

A broken radiator was hissing steam in great billowing clouds into the hallway. The detective slung his trench coat over his shoulder, put his arm around her, and said out of the corner of his mouth, “You know kid. . .this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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