The large majority of the subject matter of this Torah reading focuses on the affliction of tzaraas. Generally, this term is translated as leprosy, but that’s a misnomer. Since as the Torah relates in this reading, tzaraas affects not only a person’s skin, but also his clothes and the walls of his home, it is not leprosy or any other known disease. Instead, as Maimonides writes, tzaaras is “is not a natural occurrence; it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hora, ‘undesirable speech.’” For speech is a uniquely human potential, reflecting our innermost tendencies. Therefore, if it is misused, it has severe consequences. When we speak words of gossip or slander, we are not merely hurting the person we are speaking about, we are harming ourselves and, in a larger sense, undermining the spiritual makeup of the entire Jewish people.

Speech does not originate in a vacuum. Instead, it reveals what is hidden in a person’s heart. When a person speaks undesirably, that indicates that he has undesirable character traits. The tzaraas afflictions are intended to draw his attention to these character faults and inspire him to correct them.

To assist a person in this task, the Torah ordained that when a person had a tzaraas blemish, he would have to appear before a kohen (priest) to have the blemish inspected and ultimately be declared pure. The kohanim were characterized by a desire for unity and love for their fellow Jew. For that reason, they were chosen to bless the people. Indeed, the blessing they recite before conveying the Priestly Blessing, emphasizes this quality, stating that they were “commanded to bless His people Israel with love.”

When a person with a tzaraas blemish came to a kohen, a two-tiered process took place. On one level, the kohen was watching the internal process of purification. On a deeper level, he was causing it. Every time he looked at the blemish, he imparted spiritual energy — love and care — to the blemished person, energy that enabled him to heal his character flaws and ultimately be purified from his affliction.

Looking to the Horizon

Our Sages relate that Mashiach himself will be afflicted with wounds similar to tzaraas and in that vein, they tell the following story.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered the prophet Elijah,... and asked him: “When is Mashiach coming?”

Replied the prophet: “Go and ask him.”...

“By what sign shall I recognize him?”

“He is sitting among paupers stricken by wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at once, and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one wound at a time, and straight away binds it up again. For he says, ‘Perhaps I shall be called upon [to appear as Mashiach], and I must not be delayed!’ ”

So [Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi] went to him and said, “Peace upon you, my master and teacher!”

He answered him, “Peace upon you, son of Levi!”

Then he asked him, “Master, when are you coming?”

He answered, “Today!”

Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah, ... and told him: “...He has deceived me! He told me, ‘I am coming today,’ and he has not come!”

Said Elijah, “What Mashiach had in mind was this [verse]: ‘Today — if you would only listen to His voice!’

What is needed to bring Mashiach? — A change of direction in man. All man has to do is to turn to G‑d and heed His voice. By virtue of this very initiative, G‑d’s face will no longer be hidden.