“Parsha to the Point” – Tazria-Metzora 5777

Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

Rabbi David Stav 

The central theme of Parshat Tazria-Metzora is the unique case of tzara’at (usually translated as leprosy) in its various manifestations. Some tzara’at appears in human flesh. Some affects a person’s hair or facial hair, and other types can appear in other parts of the body. Tzara’at can even spread to clothes and houses.

The treatment for tzara’at is unusual, too. A priest, not a physician, is called in. The priest then diagnoses the tzara’at and explains what must be done to treat it. This treatment usually includes temporarily exiling the sufferer from the Israelite camp, dismantling the house, or unravelling the cloth of the affected garment.

An affected individual doesn’t simply return home once the tzara’at has disappeared from his body, house, or clothes. He must undergo a complicated process involving offering sacrifices, getting a haircut, washing his body, immersing in a mikvah, and so on. These are very unique and unusual halachot by the Torah’s standards, as the Torah generally avoids discussion of human diseases.

Of all special halakhot concerning tzara’at, I would like to focus our attention on one particular law. A major symptom of tzara’at in human beings is a white rash appearing on a person’s skin. Once someone discovers the rash, he approaches the priest, who would need to determine if the white rash is enough to classify the individual as being afflicted with tzara’at:

“And if the tzara’at (tzara’at) has spread over the skin, whereby the tzara’at covers all the skin of the [person with the] lesion, from his head to his feet, wherever the eyes of the priest can see it, then the priest shall look [at it]. And, behold! the tzara’at has covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce [the person with] the lesion clean. He has turned completely white; he is clean.” [Lev. 13:13]

In other words, if the lesion was only the size of two hands, the person would be considered unclean, whereas if the lesion were to cover the individual’s entire body, he would be clean.

How could it be that a lesion appearing in just one part of a person’s body would make him impure, and indicate the existence of some form of a disease, while a lesion or disease that had spread over the individual’s entire body would lead to the opposite conclusion – that the person is clean?! If we attempt to understand tzara’at as an ordinary disease, these verses seem puzzling to us.

It turns out that the Torah wants to stress the spiritual and ethical aspect of tzara’at manifested in this halakha, as well as in other places. Tzara’at is meant to warn us of various facets of an individual’s moral decay, including haughtiness and arrogance, envy, gossip and slander of others, etc.

Warnings and instructions are meant to be given in the appropriate amounts. At some point, a person becomes either unable or unwilling to receive a message because it is conveyed too forcefully, or because it is so intense, and the message itself loses much of its effect. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put it best:

Quarantine and seclusion (i.e. the isolation a leper is compelled to endure) distance a person from the Temple and from the society around him. The purpose [of these measures] is to lead to repentance and rectification of character traits. However, it is not hoped that this is what they will achieve, unless moral goodness had still been retained in the person’s consciousness, and can wage war against evil. Therefore, if absolute evil had suddenly emerged, i.e. ‘[it] had appeared all over’, or even if the entire became smitten with tzara’at – during the time a person had been in seclusion through quarantine this is what is meant: the days of isolation had removed any foundations of morality from his heart, so that this isolation does not lead the individual to rectifying his character traits. This is why the declaration of impurity is nullified. Rebuke is worthwhile as long as a person still hopes he is capable of correcting his negative traits and bettering his situation. However, if a person senses that he’s in dire straits, there is no reason to impose any more punishments, and it would be better to simply state that the person is pure.”

These verses seem to be expressing a rather pessimistic view, in contrast with the connotation of the expression “he is pure”, which seem to be an indication of a positive outlook. This is why our rabbis say the following: “The son of David will not come until the kingdom is converted to heresy.  …Rava said: What verse [proves this]? It is all turned white: he is clean.” [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a]

The son of David (i.e. Mashiach) will only come after all of the world’s regimes commit the worst atrocities.

It would be wonderful if we would merit salvation on account of a surge of the benevolence that exists in each and every one of us. However, at times, benevolence emerges in humanity and in individuals only once the evil within all of us is negated. When a person witnesses the embodiment of absolute evil, he suddenly realizes why benevolence is so vital. This is why everything becomes pure when everything turns white.

These ideas take on a unique meaning on the week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day. The State of Israel was established just three years after the entire kingdom became heretical, after the world witnessed evil incarnate, with its disdain for human beings, and particularly the nation of Israel. It is specifically apparent in such a reality, in which the image of God, in which man was created, fell to the deepest abyss, when people were sent to gas chambers and ovens, as if they were made of wood or paper.

It is not without reason that the state of the Jewish people, whose independence we will celebrate in the coming week, sprung from the ashes of this dark period of history. It had become entirely white when the monstrosities human society is capable of are unveiled for all to see. This is when we are beckoned to recognize the need for purity. It occurred at the inception of a country, whose nation is intended to herald the message of the purity that exists in humanity.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]

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