In the Diaspora
Tazria-Metzora 5778 (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)
This Shabbat, we will read the double-parsha of Tazri’a–Metzora in our synagogues. Dozens of verses outline the symptoms of various skin diseases that appear on people’s heads, in their beards, in their clothes and in their homes. Suffice it to say that nowhere else in the Torah can we find such a detailed description of other ailments. The Torah briefly addresses the need for a person to become healed after being injured by someone else, and later, in the “verses of rebuke”, the text lists the diseases from which the nation will suffer if they do evil.
Later, we read about the process of isolation and quarantine that a person afflicted with tzara’at is forced to endure: “alone shall he sit, outside of the camp of his residence”. Finally, we have a process of purification and returning to the community, involving various sacrifices.
The priests are put in charge of the entire treatment process, from the moment of diagnosis, when symptoms first present, to the time that a person afflicted with tzara’at had become cleansed and had returned home. Apparently, this is also the reason these chapters appear here, in Torat Hakohanim – loosely translated as the “instructions of the priests”. The word “priest” appears about one hundred times in our parsha – twice as much as in the portions of Vayikra and Tzav, which discuss the most essential tasks connected to the sacrifices made by the priests.
We understand that the priests were chosen to serve God in the Temple, where they would offer sacrifices, but what kind of special training did they undergo to qualify for treating various types of tzara’at? Why the constant emphasis on the fact that the priests were the ones running the show?
It is safe to assume that since priests were chosen for this task, tzara’at is no ordinary disease. Otherwise, it would have been treated by doctors, not priests. However, this does not explain how the priests were qualified for dealing with such matters, and why this point was repeated so often.
Our Talmudic sages tell us that there were several reasons for the appearance of tzara’at, most notably lashon harah, or “derogatory speech”, as in the case of Miriam, who contracted tzara’at after speaking ill of her brother, Moses, who had also contracted tzara’at for speaking against the People of Israel, and so on.
Yet other rabbis mentioned haughtiness as the trigger for tzara’at. They demonstrate this through the story of King Uziahu, who wouldn’t suffice with his kingship and desired to enter the Holy of Holies and serve as the high priest. Why, though, did these vices result in tzara’at?
Derogatory speech and pride seem to share something in common. In both, people do not suffice with minding their own business. In the case of derogatory speech, people tend to meddle in other people’s affairs, and in the case of pride, people tend to show contempt for other people and traditions, as they aren’t satisfied with what they have, and seek to hold various high offices. These people also tend to act pretentiously toward those around them, and this environment provides fertile ground for tzara’at to thrive.
When people cannot satisfy their own needs from within their own environments, they feel frustrated and try to find a way out. Having failed with their internal dealings, they look outwards. That is why this trait results in a disease that appears on the outside, namely through various skin conditions.
One question remains unanswered, though. Why were the priests chosen to deal with those afflicted with tzara’at? What training had they received for this purpose? The first time we encounter Aaron in the Torah is when God told Moses not to shy away from leading the people out of deference to his older brother, Aaron. “And he saw you and was happy in his heart” – he will delight in your role, God tells Moses.
Later, Aaron’s sons would be commanded to bless the entire nation of Israel with love. Our rabbis tell us that when the Tabernacle was inaugurated, Aaron shied away from offering sacrifices, fearing this would made him contemptuous towards others, but Moses told Aaron that this was precisely what he had been chosen for.
The Baal Shem Tov comments that the very fact that Aaron had shied away from performing these tasks is the reason he was selected to perform them. Aaron, and the priests in general, were chosen for their tasks, not because they thought they were the best people for the job – quite the contrary. They felt they were inadequate, and that is exactly what qualifies them to assess the tzara’at their countrymen were suffering from, and help them find a way out of this difficult situation.
A normative person living in a world full of derogatory speech and self-righteousness would never want to be healed by meeting someone who could revel in his misery, or someone who is arrogant. No one could be healed under such circumstances. Those afflicted with tzara’at need to meet with those who bless their people with love and joy – people who try to be benevolent to everyone, and never try to patronize anyone else.
We will soon be celebrating our country’s independence, and we are all very happy with our beautiful land, but now is also the time to look inwards at ourselves, as a society, and realize how sometimes, social discourse can become crass, whether the interlocutors hold differing opinions, come from different social groups, or are engaged in a dialogue with bereaved families.
More than ever before, we crave guidance from Aaron, the high priest, who could see the tzara’at and express criticism, but always did so out of love and caring for his fellow human being. It is precisely because our disputes over our lifestyles and social and political issues are so important that we need to learn how to conduct this discourse out of love and respect. We must not merely notice other people’s blemishes – we also need to want to heal them.
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