Parshat Tazria: Leprosy – A Gift from God
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC)
The majority of this week’s parsha is devoted to the plague of Tzara’at. The Torah relates detailed descriptions of different types of leprous spots, discolorations, and several other skin ailments. These ailments are to be dealt with not by a dermatologist, but by a kohen. The kohen would declare them impure or pure and they would be dealt with accordingly.
The text appears to be discussing problems of a medical nature, until chapter 13 verse 47 where leprous spots on clothing, and later (14:34) on the walls of a house, are introduced.
“G-d spoke to Moses saying: When you will come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you as a possession, I will put a plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession.” (Vayikra 14:33-34)
Leprosy on a house or on one’s clothing is certainly not within the usual range of medical problems. Furthermore, the above verse implies that there is some connection between the land of Israel (or Canaan) and these plagues. Most laws in the Torah are not introduced with the phrase “When you come to the land…” This verse also ends by saying that the plague will occur “in a house of the land of your possession.”
Ramban explains that since leprosy on houses and clothing is obviously “not in the natural order of things” it is clearly a sign from God. He goes on to say that this divine leprosy is a sign that the afflicted person or the owner of the possessions has sinned and that “God has turned aside from him.”
Regarding the rule that this leprosy only exists in the Land of Israel, Ramban simply states that a sign from God that a person has sinned is only given in the land “wherein the Glorious Name dwells.” Why should such a sign be restricted to the Land of Israel?
As a sign from God that a person has sinned, leprosy is – like prophecy – a revelation from God. Information is being communicated directly from God to a person. The connection between revelation and the Land of Israel is expressed in the following statement in the Midrash:
“Until the Land of Israel was chosen, all lands were suitable for the word [of prophecy]. Since the Land of Israel was chosen, all other lands are unsuitable.” (Tanchuma Bo 5)
Prophecy can only exist in the Land of Israel because the conditions of holiness required to experience prophecy only exist in the Holy Land. There are many commandments that are only applicable in the Land of Israel. One who lives in the Land of Israel has the ability to observe more of the Torah – God’s expressed will. Greater observance of God’s will naturally produces a stronger relationship to God. Prophecy – direct and clear communication from God to people – requires a closeness that can only be achieved in the Land of Israel. This idea is expressed in the continuation of the above Midrashic quotation.
“When Jerusalem was destroyed the word [of prophecy] was banished from the Land of Israel.” (ibid)
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem greatly diminished the intimacy of the relationship between God and Israel. The service of God in the Temple could no longer take place. Less of God’s will could now be fulfilled. As a result, the intimacy of Israel’s relationship with God suffered. This diminished relationship does not allow for direct communication in the form of prophecy.
Leprosy, then, can be seen as a physical form of prophecy. A person has sinned and God is communicating that this sin has caused His relationship to that person to suffer. When people struggle with faith in God they often say “if only God would give me a sign…” A sign from God is no small matter. In order to receive a sign from God, one must be on a spiritual level to merit such a sign. Imagine someone saying “I’d believe in God if only He would talk to me directly.” Obviously that is an unreasonable demand. It is unreasonable because prophecy – God speaking to people – is bestowed on a person who has worked very hard to cultivate a powerfully deep and devoted relationship to God. Hearing God’s “voice” or receiving signs and messages from God requires spiritual perfection to the point that one is in a position to receive such messages and signs.
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, (Italy 1475-1550) in his commentary to this week’s parsha (Vayik. 13:47), writes that leprosy of the kind discussed here only affected those members of the community who were on a high enough spiritual level to “merit” it. It is remarkable that what appears to be a cursed illness that punishes sinners is reserved for those who are on a high spiritual level. It does not seem fair that one who is on a lower spiritual level does not have to worry about this punishment while those who have a closer relationship to God do.
There is a powerful moral lesson in all of this. Any clearly communicated message from God is a blessing. A message from God that alerts one to a crisis in one’s relationship to God is invaluable. Imagine having a clear and obvious barometer that informs you when your relationship with God is healthy and when it needs a little work.
May we all merit to be worthy of such punishments from God.