A sign and a wonder

As it sometimes happens, this parshah is called Parshat Tazria even though practically all of it deals with matters relating to the metzora, while Parshat Metzora itself deals with those matters to a much lesser extent.

Maimonides writes that we do not actually know what tzaraat, as it is described in the Torah, is.1 In modern Hebrew, the word tzaraat refers to leprosy, which may be what the Talmud calls “baalei raatan.”2 To this end, Maimonides writes that, according to his medical understanding, tzaraat does not resemble any known disease.3

Since this is not a medical matter, it becomes easier to understand the strangest part of this phenomenon – tzaraat on houses and garments. When it appears on human flesh, it is at least possible to think of tzaraat as a disease, but this is certainly not the case when it appears on inanimate objects. Moreover, houses and garments stricken with tzaraat are burned, a much harsher treatment than people who are similarly afflicted receive.

Another puzzle regarding tzaraat is the nature of its tumah, especially in comparison with other types of tumah. Generally, only living things that stopped living, either entirely or partially, can produce tumah. Indeed, among plants and inanimate objects, nothing is intrinsically tamei. Garments or other objects are generally only rendered tamei, but are not intrinsically so. In the laws of tzaraat, however, there exists an anomaly: A garment or house is itself an av hatumah (primary source of impurity), a phenomenon that is unique to tzaraat.

Maimonides’ conclusion is that tzaraat is really not a disease. He says that tzaraat should be regarded not as an illness that is designated as tamei, but as “a sign and a wonder” that G‑d uses to mark someone.

A discriminating affliction

As we mentioned in the previous essay, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that tzaraat is an affliction that strikes only the most exalted individuals.4 He cites the Zohar’s statement that there are four spiritual levels that a person can reach, in ascending order: enosh, gever, ish, and – highest of all – adam5 Similarly, the talmudic statement that “only you are called ‘adam’”6 is based on the assumption that adam is the noblest possible term for a human being. In light of this, it is curious that the term adam is used in connection with the mark of tzaraat: “If a man (adam) has on the skin”;7 “If a tzaraat mark appears on a man (adam).”8 The answer is that an ordinary person is not worthy of tzaraat. G‑d does not bother to put a special mark on a person of no importance to show that he has acted improperly; that would be obvious even without the tzaraat. If a person is known to have serious faults and shortcomings, G‑d does not need to let people know that he has sinned, nor does the person himself need a warning from heaven; he knows this on his own.

Only someone who is on a high spiritual level is eligible for and in need of such a sign. The Talmud says that the tzaraat marks are an “altar of atonement.”9 Hence, to receive such a mark is truly indicative of a high level, of which the receiver must be worthy. In this connection, our sages note that in principle, the nations of the world should never be afflicted with boils. In practice, though, non-Jews nevertheless do experience this malady, so that they should not be able to claim that the Jews are “a nation of people afflicted with boils.”10

Clearly, not everyone who speaks slander gets tzaraat; for if that were the case, it would be very hard to find people who are tahor. The list of people in Tanach who experienced tzaraat is quite impressive, ranging from Moses and Miriam to Naaman, Gechazi, and Uzziyahu. When Miriam speaks slander, she gets tzaraat, and when Moses slanders Israel, he, too, perhaps deserves tzaraat. Naaman “was important to his master and held in high esteem, for through him G‑d had granted victory to Aram. He was a mighty man of valor, but a metzora.”11 Uzziyahu was a great king “who did what was right in G‑d’s sight,” and “G‑d made him prosper.”12 Gechazi not only attended Elisha but was a great man in his own right.13

Spread of the mark

Since tzaraat is not a disease but a mark and a sign, clearly there is something to learn from it. So let us focus on a few of the detailed laws connected with tzaraat.

The first point to consider is this: At what moment does an ordinary blemish become a tzaraat mark, which renders a person tamei? The surest sign that a blemish is considered tzaraat is that the mark continues to spread. If it stops immediately after it appears, it remains pure. This is true of all types of tzaraat described in the Torah. When a mark appears, this signals that perhaps there is something in the person’s life that must be rectified. But it becomes tzaraat only when it begins to grow.

In the Tochechah section in Leviticus, in which G‑d reproves the nation, we read: “If you remain indifferent with Me, I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance.”14 Analogously, the preceding section states, “If your brother becomes impoverished and sells some of his hereditary land,”15 followed by, “If your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself beside you,”16 until finally, “If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you.”17

The Talmud says that these verses in chapter 25 recount one story that unfolds progressively: A person can act improperly without realizing this, in which case G‑d then causes him to suffer a minor blow. If he still does not realize that he is in the wrong, G‑d brings upon him another blow. And if he still does not realize this, G‑d brings upon him yet another blow.18

The same is true of tzaraat and its causes: So long as a person does not stop acting improperly, the tzaraat continues to spread. This applies to many different areas. Every person sins at some point in his life, for “there is no one so perfectly righteous on earth who does [only] good and never sins.”19 But when this happens, the sinner must recognize his error and stop himself from sinning further. If, however, he allows the stain to grow, it will become malignant tzaraat, which must be burned, destroyed, and eradicated.

“Let her not be like one dead”

Another central element in the laws of tzaraat is that the mark contains dead flesh. The blood – the life – drains out, and therefore the flesh and the hair upon it turn white. When we say that “the wicked in their lifetime are called dead,”20 this refers to tumah. A wicked person’s tumah derives from the fact that he is essentially a dead creature. The element of death in the tumah of tzaraat shows that a person can die before coming to the end of his physical life; he can continue walking among us and nevertheless be a corpse. Like a corpse, a metzora conveys tumah by being together with someone or something under the same roof. The implication is that the metzora has already begun to die, and therefore even now renders everything that is under the same roof with him tamei. He may appear to be alive and kicking, but in truth he is a walking, breathing corpse.

It happens to people – both young and old – that they take upon themselves the fear of G‑d, whether in a dramatic change or in a gradual process of spiritual growth. Such a person experiences a spiritual awakening and becomes like a new being. But this same person who was so inspired can sometimes begin to feel that he is partially dead. There is a respiratory disease called pulmonary fibrosis in which the lungs stiffen, becoming hard like wood. Even people who do not suffer from physical ailments can sometimes feel like a block of wood. A person who used to smile stops smiling; a person who used to be sensitive in so many ways suddenly turns cold.

Why does this happen? Justifications can always be found. A person may choose to be wary, thinking that to act otherwise would lead to sin or frivolity. One who continues along this path finds that each day another part within him dies. A person who was creative, or who was always joyful, bringing joy to others, now has become a sort of crushed creature, sulking in a corner. He dwells in isolation, outside the camp; it is a sign that something has gone wrong. In the past, he had experienced beauty, and it filled him with feeling; now, he feels nothing.

Such a person, who is dying little by little, continually reinforces this downward spiral by telling himself that the more dead he becomes, the more he deserves such a fate. He thinks that his dark, morose attitude to life is a form of devoutness, as we read in Malachi, “We have walked mournfully because of God.”21

There is a concept in the Talmud that can often be difficult to comprehend: the notion of “movable realty.”22 Slaves, for instance, are considered “movable realty” – they are human beings who possess the same legal status as one’s land or one’s house. In Parashat Tazria, we see something very similar – a dead man who continues to move around as if he is alive. The metzora is dead, and therefore conveys the same tuma that a corpse conveys. The only difference is that the metzora has not been buried yet. He is “movable realty.” Holiness and all that stems from it are characterized by energy and vitality, while tzaraat is a form of death mark, sapping the very life force from the metzora who bears it.

“The healthy skin is a sign of impurity”

Another law of tzaraat is very strange even in the context of other forms of tuma: “On the day that healthy skin appears on it, he becomes impure. When the Priest sees the healthy skin, he shall declare him impure. The healthy skin is a sign of impurity; it is tzaraat23 – and the same law applies in all other types of tzaraat.24 Normally, healthy flesh would seem to be a sign of recovery. But the Torah says the precise opposite: Healthy flesh is a sign of tumah, and he is sent back outside the camp.

The meaning of this law is that if vitality begins to emerge from the tzaraat itself, if the life that a person experiences flows from the mark, this, too, is a sign of tumah. Before, the tzaraat was merely a blemish; now, he is vitalized by it. This resembles a common sequence of events in a person’s spiritual journey. At first, one simply cannot tolerate people who are unscrupulous regarding certain laws. He may react scornfully to people who neglect to perform the ritual washing of the hands, or who are careless when they trim their fingernails. As a result, he doesn’t want to be around them, so he removes himself from society. After a while, this scorn for others becomes a source of vitality and pleasure for him. Before, he may have slandered others simply because he was haughty, whereas now all of his vitality comes from this vice. When one’s fault becomes a flag and a banner, this is a much more serious problem. At first he viewed this character trait as a vice; now that he indulges in it enthusiastically, it is like putting a stamp of spiritual approval on an evil attribute. While beforehand he engaged in slander occasionally, now it is his whole life.

“The healthy skin is a sign of impurity.” When healthy flesh begins to grow within the mark, when the affliction itself starts to become his life, this is not the vitality of recovery; it is vitality in which the affliction becomes a remedy, in which death becomes life.

Seeing one’s own faults

An examination of the vices that, according to our sages, cause tzaraat yields a long list: haughtiness, arrogance, miserliness, lashon hara (spreading an evil report), and many others.25 Their common denominator is that they are all subtle evils. Regarding such subtleties it is appropriate that some kind of sign should be given from above, marking the sinner and indicating that the sin requires rectification.

Why is it so difficult to perceive these faults on one’s own? Why does G‑d have to mark them? It seems that these are all faults for which it is very easy to find some kind of justification, and that is why it is so difficult to identify them and rid oneself of them. When someone commits a blatant sin with full knowledge that what he is doing is wrong, he may experience pangs of guilt that prevent him from repeating such a sin. But what happens to someone who commits a sin and feels that it is a mitzvah?

This is precisely the case of Miriam. Miriam wanted to give a reproof, feeling that her words should and must be said. Hence, if she had not been stricken with tzaraat, she would not have understood that she was out of line. The same is true of the other vices on the list. Haughtiness is often confused with pride, but they are actually quite different. Haughtiness pertains only to people of great stature, whereas pride can apply to anyone. A person can be covered in filth and be despised by all who meet him, and still think of himself as the greatest person in the world – this is the sin of pride. In the case of haughtiness, however, we are talking about someone who has ample reason to believe that he is on a high level, that he is a true tzaddik, but this perspective makes it impossible for him to see his own faults. Uzziyahu was a great king who was victorious in wars, built up the country, and was surrounded with honor and glory; he certainly had reason to believe that he was growing ever greater. The same was true of Naaman, “a mighty man of valor, but a metzora,”26 who was the most important man in the kingdom.

The Mishnah says, “A person may examine all tzaraat marks except his own.”27 What is the reason for this? After all, one may examine his own slaughtering knife; to be sure, a rabbi usually performs this examination, but this is only out of respect, or because a rabbi is generally more familiar with the relevant halachot. One can also render halachic decisions for oneself regarding the laws of kashrut if one has the requisite knowledge. In the case of tzaraat, however – where one would think that a certain measure of expertise would suffice – one may not examine the marks for oneself.

An additional oddity in the laws of tzaraat is the following: The Torah decrees that one must show the marks to a Priest, who must be the one to declare if the mark is tamei. But how does the Priest know? After all, not all Priests are Torah scholars! If, indeed, the Priest is unfamiliar with the laws of tzaraat, a Torah scholar stands at the Priest’s side and instructs him to say “tamei” or “tahor” when appropriate.28 Thus, in a situation where the metzora is himself a Torah scholar, the following interaction is plausible: The metzora shows his tzaraat to the Priest; the Priest looks at the mark and asks the metzora, “Rabbi, what is the law in such a case?”; the metzora responds, “In my opinion, the mark is tamei”; and on that basis the Priest declares, “The mark is tamei,” or, “The mark is tahor,” rendering the person tamei or tahor respectively. According to halachah, this is a perfectly legitimate arrangement. Why, then, can’t a person examine his own tzaraat?

The rule that “a person may examine all tzaraat marks except his own” applies not only to marks that appear on the skin; it applies even more to the marks that appear on the soul. This is because marks or faults, by their very nature, prevent one from seeing that he is afflicted. No matter how egregious the fault, one will still be certain that everything is all right. For him to become aware of his own fault, someone from the outside must tell him that he is tamei. For the same reason, one also cannot purify oneself. It is very difficult to determine when one’s fault is gone, just as it is difficult to determine when it sets in. The nature of “marks” of this type is that they apply to the entire person, and it is very difficult to correctly assess them, especially when their meaning is unclear. Even after one knows what the signs are, the most one can say is: “There appears to be something like a mark on my house.”

In all these matters, from slander and miserliness to haughtiness and the rest of the list, the question of ethical subtleties is so serious and complicated that there is almost no way of determining where the truth lies.

Speaking slander is a serious prohibition; on the other hand, it is a mitzvah to expose hypocrites.29 And if, by warning people that a certain person is a sinner, one performs a mitzva, it then becomes possible to constantly engage in the “mitzvah” of slander. A circular pattern begins: If a person seems wicked, one may slander him; the more slander that is spoken about him, the more wicked he seems, and the more one may continue to slander him. Even in the Chafetz Chayim’s book Shemirat HaLashon, there are a few sub-paragraphs discussing the various loopholes by which one may slander a person in a permissible manner. An ordinary person will likely never come to this, but a great man sometimes does.

Pride, too, can be a very important trait, and can serve a lofty purpose. The Talmud says that a Torah scholar should possess “an eighth of an eighth” of pride,30 and of King Jehoshaphat it is written that “his heart was elevated in the ways of G‑d.”31 Some people possess a small measure of pride – “an eighth of an eighth” – while others possess a larger, “elevated” measure.

“He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp”

The remedy for tzaraat is that the metzora must remove himself from all categories. The metzora does not go to a doctor in order to be cured. Rather, he is thrown out of the camp, out of human society – at most, he may interact with one other metzora – so that he should be entirely alone and engage in introspection.

Some of the ways in which people erroneously categorize themselves are based on social structures. If one constantly contrasts himself with others, then it will always be possible to find someone who is smaller and more contemptible than he is, someone who deserves to be vilified and slandered. It may then seem praiseworthy to oppress this other person physically, financially, and in any way possible.

When one is isolated with his tzaraat, one remains alone, and only then can one truly ponder one’s own faults. Only after one is told that he is beset with faults and he is isolated with them can he begin to grapple with them until they disappear. If one remains isolated in this way for many years, it is because he has not dealt with his faults sufficiently. King Uzziyahu, for example, remained isolated until the day of his death, because he continued to feel that he was not at fault.

On the other hand, when a person is isolated, he is also liable to lose his sense of proportion. Hence, the Talmud says that one should not study alone, because one who studies alone is liable to err and then repeat the error over a long period of time.32 Faults, however, relate to subtleties in one’s personal conduct that cannot always be measured against someone else. What is more, another person’s counsel is helpful only up to a certain point and cannot reach the root of the matter.

Once, a group of Hasidim approached the Maggid of Mezeritch and told him that they lived far away and needed someone to be their guide and teacher. They suggested Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (who in fact became a kind of successor to the Maggid after his death) and asked how they could determine whether he was the right man. What are the criteria by which to measure whether he is truly a great man? The Maggid responded, “Ask him whether there exists any method of avoiding pride. If he gives you such a method, you will know that there is no substance to him.” When they posed the Maggid’s question to Rabbi Menachem Mendel, he answered, “What can I tell you? One person might wear sackcloth and filthy clothing, and his heart might still be full of pride, whereas someone else may walk erect and dress elegantly, yet his heart may be broken inside him. There is no method for this.”

There are some ailments for which a remedy exists, and there are some for which this is impossible. One who has become tamei by contact with a corpse must go to the Priest in order to be purified; one who has a different problem must go to the elders and sages for a solution. In the case of tzaraat, however, if one is already great enough to receive such an affliction, this type of treatment does not help him. Indeed, the metzora does not go to the Priest to be cured; he goes to the Priest only after he is cured, so that he should look at the mark and issue a ruling. In all the stages of the process that precedes this ruling, even the Priest cannot offer him any help.

The only recourse for the metzora is to sit alone. He must keep sitting for as long as it takes to discover what is wrong and to set things right. The metzora is sent out to think, to relieve him of his preoccupation with business, to stop him from giving public sermons. Until he rectifies his problems on his own, he remains a metzora, and if the mark intensifies, his tzaraat spreads.

To remain alone is one of the best ways to attain self-rectification. One begins to reflect more and more on oneself and on one’s path, the outer shells of one’s personality begin to fall off, and sometimes parts of a person that were hidden behind these shells are revealed.

In the course of Jewish history, mainly in the time of the First Temple, there were many prophets, all of who were extraordinary personalities who performed wonders in heaven and on earth, and yet none of this helped avert the destruction of the Temple and the exile. People sat and listened to the prophets and exclaimed, “What a wonderful derashah! What language! What Hebrew! What a pleasure to hear!”33 – and then they went to sleep. Only during the transition between the First Temple period and the Second Temple period can one see a change in Israel’s attitude toward the prophets. During the Second Temple period, there was a fundamental change for the better – Judaism began to deal with other matters. Why did this happen?

Apparently, the period of destruction and exile, the period characterized by the verse, “How does the city sit solitary,”34 gave better moral instruction than all of the prophets combined. Apparently, solitude is incredibly effective. Then as now, people feel complacent, as long as they are in their own place, with an army to protect them and diplomatic relations with their neighbors – whether these neighbors are the Assyrians and the Egyptians or the Americans and the Russians – and with a great deal of money to build palaces across the country, all in accordance with national protocol. When the prophet comes and cries out in protest – it is easy to ignore him. But seventy years of “How does the city sit solitary” accomplished what all the prophets were unable to do.

Parshat Tazria does not conclude with the metzora’s complete rectification; only in the next parshah do we reach this stage. In this parashah we are still dealing primarily with the “isolated metzora,” a metzora who has been given a warning. In the next parshah we learn how one who has gone through this entire period, who has experienced all that he needs to experience, can eventually make a full recovery.