Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Eviction Affliction
Rav Jonathan Bailey attended Yeshivat Hamivtar from 1997-2002 and received his rabbinic ordination through Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph & Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary from Rav Shlomo Riskin and Rav Chaim Brovender, as well as from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. He now teaches full-time at Midreshet HaRova, and recently published his first book, “You Have to Know Torah: The Weekly Parsha in Clues א through ת”.
To understand the affliction of tzara’at, the ideal would have been for God to have explained it to us. Well, He didn’t. So, the next best method would have been to look at all the times it occurs – as a reprimand – in Chumash, and compare the circumstances, people involved, etc.; well, it only happens once, with Miriam’s criticism of Moshe at the end of Parshat Be’ha’alotkha. So what method is left to us? In this week’s two parshiyot, the types of tzara’at are enumerated, along with the negative consequences, and purification processes. We know that God’s punishments are always perfectly reflective of the crime, so if we understand the ramifications to the punishment and the method of purification, they will serve as an ample source for our understanding of the reason behind this enigmatic affliction.
To begin, there are only three ‘places’ where tzara’at can occur: on people (skin), their clothing or their houses. Also, when someone is officially determined a metzorah, he must: let his hair grow, allow his clothing to become ragged and tattered, pull his ‘hood’ down over his face, publicly proclaim, ‘I am impure, I am impure’ and reside, alone, outside the public camp for at least seven days. Then, when he is officially rid of his affliction, he must shave off all his hair, immerse himself and his clothing, bring a collection of korbanot and have the oil and blood of these korbanot sprinkled upon him. Then he is permitted to return to the camp but not to his house, for he must reside another seven days outside of his personal abode and only a week after his official return may he finally enter his house. These are all the facts we have from the text.
If we look at the list of possible affected areas, we can immediately discern a common theme: all these locales are used as societal definers. How you look, how you dress, what kind of house you live in; and the ‘better’ these characteristics, the ‘higher’ you are in society. So, our picture is now a bit sharper: this punishment’s affliction is societal specific. Then, when a person is declared a true metzorah, he must let his hair grow wild, let his clothing become tattered, he must cover his face, publicly proclaim to his neighbors that he is impure and, most blatant of all, he must leave society and live alone! So, the punishment’s repercussions, too, are directly connected to society, for the process totally removes the afflicted from his societal status. When he finally wants to reenter society, he must first shave off his hair, immerse himself and his clothing (‘immersion’ is the Torah’s metaphorical symbol of rebirth), but nonetheless only returns to the general society, for he must still remain outside his own, personal house. After seven days – seven days of being ‘right there’ but just not all the way in – he may totally reenter society.
To review: the social status symbols are directly afflicted; the punishment demands a total disregarding of every aspect of societal standing; a return requires removal and subsequent recreation of social standing and seven days of enforced introspection before returning fully to society. What we can now posit, therefore, is that the punishment of tzara’at was for one who corrupted socially, so that God reciprocates perfectly with an enforced corruption of the transgressor’s society. It is not coincidental, therefore, that the Midrash attributes the transgression of Lashon Harah as the cause of this affliction – Lashon Harah concerns the corrupting of the preexisting social system by introducing facts and information that directly lead to the damaging of another’s social standing. And, to return to our last proof-source, Miriam: if you read the episode carefully, you will see that even when Moshe’s prayer to restore her health is accepted, God still requires her to remain outside of the camp for seven days! For if one receives tzara’at for a social crime (she criticized the leader of the nation, seeking to lower his status (which is why God immediately responds with ‘Moshe is the greatest of all, we speak face to face’ i.e. he’s the ‘highest’)), although the actual affliction may heal, the lesson still must be learned – so she had to remain alone, to introspect, even though the prayer for the physical affliction was received.
This, I believe, is the meaning behind tzara’at and this, I believe, is the Torah’s emphasis of the utmost severity in belittling, disparaging or undermining your fellow human. The misconceived, erroneous notion that is so easily believed that as long as we’re good ‘God-Jews’ then we don’t have to be good ‘People-Jews’ is one that the Torah recognized even at the inception of the nation and one that God looked to prevent with the most dramatic of methods.