The Lessons of Leprosy

Avi Ganz is the director of the Elaine and Norm Brodsky Yeshivat Darkaynu Program

Avi Ganz head shot

“תניא ארבעה חשובים כמת: עני ומצורע, וסומא ומי שאין לו בנים וכו’  מצורע דכתיב (במדבר י”ב, י”ב): ‘אל נא תהי כמת’.”  (נדרים ס”ד:ב)

The Gemara (in Arachin and other places) tells us that Tzoraat was a sort of spiritual consequence of speaking Lashon Hora.  Once someone violates a civil contract (even an implied one), the punishment very often reflects that.  But how often does the Torah describe, in great detail, the physical expression of a spiritual ailment which is then to be diagnosed and treated by a Kohen and after which comes yet another set of unique rules, or a course of follow up treatment, as it were?

The Metzora, the gemara tells us, will first notice the walls of his house afflicted.  This, if nothing else, gives him some time to remove his belongings.  A warning of things to come.  The next step is the clothing of the Metzora.  Last, of course, is when the individual develops this skin condition and is sent outside of society.

Without paying too much attention to the details, it’s hard not to notice this unique ritual and how it differs from most: a person gets a physical punishment; an illness as a result of his or her spiritual misconduct which, ultimately, was due to a transgression of the “Bein Adam L’Chaveiro” sort.  The first instance, of course, was Miriam, who was taken to task for haven misspoken about her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.

The Great Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979) wonders what it is about the Metzora that gives him the status of “chashuv k’meis,” or considered dead.  He suggests that our fundamental role on this earth is to engage with and provide for others. 

An ‘ani‘ cannot provide for others simply because he is lacking the resources to do so.  A blind person who cannot detect others in his surroundings is also chashuv kmeis because a primary function of the human condition is to be sensitive to others and their needs, and this particular handicap directly affects this very significant function.  As parents, our raison d’etre is to provide for our children; ergo, one who does not have children is lacking in the ability to give. 

There is no doubt that all three have opportunities to engage and to provide. The Torah is not suggesting that these individuals are less than, but rather that they start with a significant handicap.  Rav Chaim suggests, therefore, that the Metzora is included among these others as a chashuv kmeis because he has been removed from society: he can no longer engage with friends, children, students, and teachers.  His connection to the world from which he benefits has become one-sided and that, at least for now, makes his existence more similar to that of a meis.

And if so, Rav Chaim continues, we can understand the ritual, the illness, and its direct relationship with the individual and the Lashon Hora that caused it.

In the instance of Miriam HaNevia, we know that Miriam was not speaking ill of her brother for fun.  We also know that she was not necessarily criticizing Moshe Rabbeinu.  Yet, the Torah tells us that she was sent out of the camp and, it would seem, there was even a chance that the entire nation was to travel leaving Miriam behind.  She was, in a very real way, an outcast.

When someone speaks ill of another person, the intention, too often, is to highlight otherness. The goal (while not stated explicitly) is to make sure the listener appreciates just how different and unworthy the subject is.  In other words, the speaker of Lashon Hora intends to make sure that the subject of his tale is “michutz laMachane“; an outsider. 

The Torah’s response, then, makes perfect sense.  Now you will be chutz laMachane.  Now you will know what it feels like to be different.  It’s not enough to “just” have the skin condition and it’s also not enough to “just” be exiled out of the camp.  Both have to take place to drive the lesson home. 

Rav Shmulevitz highlights the Rambam who stresses that Miriam was Moshe’s older sister who had doted on him and taken care of him… and Moshe Rabbeinu, the great anav, certainly didn’t take it personally and yet… the story of Miriam and her Tzoraas is one of the six zechiros: to be read and remembered consistently. 

The message of this unique set of laws is the sensitivity with which we must relate to others.  If we are careful about not speaking negatively of others, we will come to see and share more positivity.  As difficult and sensitive as these ideas are, they aid in what is one of the most significant of our roles: giving to others in all ways, supporting our friends, and making sure that every individual has a place to contribute to society. 

When the Metzora eventually does return to society, he is back in a place where he can give.  If excommunication is the greatest punishment, then having a place within society is the greatest reward.

Shabbat Shalom!


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