The Torah sections of Tazria (Leviticus 12–13) and Metzora (Leviticus 14–15) discuss the laws of tzaraat, a spiritual illness. Its identifying mark is a white patch (or patches) appearing on the skin of a person, or a dark green or dark pink patch (or patches) on a cloth or leather garment or on the walls of a home.

Not every such patch indicates tzaraat. There are several secondary symptoms that determine whether the person (or house or garment) should be declared tamei (impure). In the human body, one of the signs of tzaraat is if the white patch subsequently causes (at least) two hairs in its area to turn white.

Regarding this law, there is a remarkable passage in the Talmud that recounts a debate taking place in the Academy of Heaven:

It was debated in the Academy of Heaven: If the white patch precedes the white hair, it is impure; if the white hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there is doubt (as to which came first)?

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: It is pure.

The entire Academy of Heaven said: It is impure.

Said they: Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah bar Nachmeini. For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared: I am singular[ly knowledgeable] in the laws of tzaraat . . . They dispatched a messenger [to bring him to heaven] . . . Said [Rabbah]: Tahor! Tahor! (Pure, pure!). (Talmud, Bava Metzia 86a)

Flight From Self

To understand the meaning of this debate between the Holy One and the Academy of Heaven, and why a mortal human being was called upon to decide between them, we must first understand the nature of the tzaraat disease in general, and the significance of the white patch and the white hair in particular.

Chassidic teaching explains that the human soul is driven by two contrary forces: the drive to run or escape (ratzo), and the drive to settle (shov). Every time we are overcome by excitement, love, ambition or yearning, we are running, escaping the self to reach for something greater, more beautiful and perfect than it. Whenever we experience awe, humility, devotion or commitment, we are settling—affirming our connection to our existence, our place in the world and our mission in life. Ratzo drives us to climb a mountain, shov to build a home; ratzo to pray, shov to do a mitzvah.

In a spiritually healthy soul, the will vacillates between ratzo and shov like the rise and fall of a well-balanced pendulum, or the contraction and expansion of a smoothly beating heart. The constraints of our place in the world, the finiteness of our nature and body, the boundaries of our very being—these impel us to escape them, to strive for the unbounded and the infinite. But our very escape brings us to a place from which we better appreciate the beauty and necessity of our existence. Thus the ratzo peaks and provokes a counteraction of shov, a return to oneself and one’s place in the world.

Tzaraat is a condition in which this crucial balance is disrupted. The pendulum of the soul ascends in its ratzo arc, but fails to swing back in shov. The will escapes the self and fails to return, leaving behind a vacuum in which all sorts of undesirable elements can now take root, like weeds in an abandoned garden.

This is symbolized by the white patches and the white hairs that are the symptoms of tzaraat. A patch of white skin indicates that life and vitality have departed from (this part of) the body. Still, a white patch alone does not mean that the will’s failure to settle has resulted in any negative developments in the character and behavior of the person. But when we see white hairs sprouting in the white patch—when we see dead things feeding on this dead place—we have a full-blown case of tzaraat.

On the other hand, the existence of white hairs, in and of themselves, do not indicate tzaraat. These might represent the ordinary baggage that we lug through life, the run-of-the mill negative traits and experiences that actually have the positive function of challenging us and provoking our finest talents and most potent energies. It is only when the white hairs are caused by the white patch that something serious is afoot. Such a condition indicates that the person has run away with his escapist impulses so high and so far that he has completely abandoned his commitments to life and productivity, leaving behind a hollow and lifeless self that is a breeding ground for what is worst in human nature.

Hence the law that white hairs are a symptom of tzaraat only when the white patch precedes the white hair, indicating that this dead growth is the result of a certain area of the person’s life having been drained of its vitality.

Two Visions of Man

What is the root cause of tzaraat? Ratzo is the escape from self, while shov is the return to self. It would therefore seem that tzaraatratzo without shov—derives from excessive selflessness.

In truth, however, the very opposite is the case. Ratzo is what the soul desires to do, while shov is what the soul is committed to do. Escapist behavior is the ultimate self-indulgence, while settling down is the ultimate submission. Tzaraat, then, derives from a lack of humility, from the failure to yield one’s own will to the will of one’s Creator.

This explains the aforementioned debate between the Holy One and the Academy of Heaven. The Kabbalists speak of two types of divine energy that nourish our existence: a divine light that “fills the worlds,” entering within each creature to relate to its individual character; and a divine light that “encompasses the worlds”—a transcendent energy to which we can relate only as something mystical or spiritual—something that is outside of ourselves.

Of course, the divine essence is neither “filling” nor “encompassing.” Ultimately, G‑d’s relationship with our existence cannot be defined as internal or external—it is neither and both, for the divine reality is beyond such distinctions and characterizations. But G‑d desired to relate to us in a manner that is consistent with our reality. In our experience, there are things that are internal—things that we can understand and empathize with—and things that are encompassing, meaning that they are beyond the parameters of our understanding. So He, too, relates to us via these two channels, making Himself available to us via rational and apprehensible media (e.g., the laws of nature), as well as through mystical and spiritual vectors.

There are numerous differences between these two modes of divine energy and their effects upon us, discussed at length in the works of Kabbalah and Chassidism. One basic difference is that the divine light that “fills the worlds” gives credence to our sense of reality and selfhood; while from the perspective of the “encompassing” light, which transcends the parameters of our existence, our reality has no true validity, and our sense of self is little more than an illusion.

The “Academy of Heaven” is an allusion to the filling light, while “the Holy One” (kedushah, holiness, means “transcendence”) connotes the “encompassing” light of G‑d. So regarding the case in which there is doubt as to whether the white hair came before or after the white patch, the “Academy of Heaven” is inclined to declare this a case of tzaraat. For this is the divine perspective on man that recognizes man’s selfishness. If tzaraat is a possibility, we must suspect that it has indeed occurred.

“The Holy One,” however, sees man as an essentially selfless being. From the standpoint of the “encompassing” light, tzaraat is an anomaly. If there is clear and conclusive evidence that a person has indulged his escapist desires to such an extreme, the laws of tzaraat apply. But where there is doubt, this divine perspective is inclined to declare him pure.

The Verdict

Who might decide between these two divine visions? Only one who is in touch with the overriding vision, with the singular truth that transcends both the “filling” and the “encompassing” modes of divine relationship with reality.

Rabbah bar Nachmeini was “singular in the laws of tzaraat.” He was a human being, but a human being who had so thoroughly devoted himself to G‑d’s Torah that he had uncovered its singular core—uncovered the divine vision of reality as it relates to the very essence of G‑d rather than to either the “filling” or the “encompassing” elements of His light.

When Rabbah bar Nachmeini pondered the laws of human selfishness and selflessness, he saw man as G‑d Himself sees him: as a creation utterly devoted to the will of its Creator. A creation who, even if touched by the possibility of a shov-deficiency malady, is invariably declared: Pure! Pure!