Metzora begins with the laws concerning the purification of the leper. The Rebbe begins with the question, why should we call this Sidra Metzora, “the leper,” a name with unpleasant connotations? Especially when an earlier generation of Rabbis called it, neutrally, Zot Tihyeh (“This shall be…” the law of the leper).

To understand the significance of leprosy as discussed in the Sicha, we must remember that it is considered, by the Torah and the Rabbis, not only as a disease but as a punishment specifically for the sin of slander. It was the punishment that Miriam was given for the tale-bearing against Moses (Bamidbar, ch. 12). A leper was isolated from the rest of the people once his illness had been diagnosed, and made to live outside the camp. Since the disease had a spiritual as well as a physical dimension, this was not simply a hygienic precaution, but had a moral purpose. Likewise his purification was a recovery of spiritual as well as physical health. It is the spiritual dimension of this cleansing procedure that the Rebbe analyzes.

1. Two Names

The Sidra Metzora has not always been so-called. Earlier Rabbis, like Rabbi Saadia Gaon,1 Rashi2 and Rambam,3 called it by the preceding words of the verse, Zot Tihyeh (“This shall be”). Only in more recent generations has it become the custom to call it Metzora.4

But Metzora means “the leper”: A name with unpleasant associations. Indeed, to avoid this, it is referred to in many places as Tahara, “Purification.”5 Why then is it called by this seemingly inappropriate name, especially when there existed beforehand a name for the Sidra with none of these associations?

2. “He Shall Be Brought”

Before we can solve the problem, we must notice two further difficulties in its opening passage, “This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall go forth out of the camp….”

Firstly there seems to be a contradiction here. On the one hand, the leper is to be “brought to the priest.” On the other, the priest is to “go forth out of the camp” and come to him. Who is to go to whom? In fact, it is the priest who comes to the leper, for the leper was not allowed to come within the three camps. What then is the meaning of, “he shall be brought to the priest?”

Secondly, why was the leper to be “brought?” Why does the Torah not say “he shall come?” The use of the passive verb “brought” suggests that his meeting with the priest was against his will.

In answering the first question, the commentators6 explain that although the leper was indeed to stay outside the camp, he was to be brought to the edge of it, so as to avoid burdening the priest with a long journey. But this explanation is not easy to understand. Although the leper was, because of his affliction, commanded to remain outside the camp, there was no obligation on him to go far away from it. He could stay near its boundaries. And since the instruction about the cleansing procedure was directed to all lepers, including those who were situated near to the camp, the explanation of the commentators does not remove our puzzlement.

3. Repentance: The First Stage

To arrive at an inward understanding of the question, we must consider what Rashi says on the phrase,7 “All the days wherein the plague is in him… he shall dwell alone.” Rashi comments, “(Even) people who are unclean (for reasons other than leprosy) shall not abide with him… because he, by slanderous statements, parted man and wife, or a man from his friend, (therefore) he must be parted (from everybody).” We can say, then, that he is excluded from the three camps because of his association with strife and dissension. His slander causes men to be distant from one another, whereas the idea of holiness is unity.8He has no place, therefore, in the holy congregation. But what is more, he is to be separated even from the other categories of unclean people, because, as Rambam says,9 his slander is progressive. At first it is turned against ordinary people, then against the righteous, then against the prophets, and finally against G‑d himself, and he ends by denying the fundamentals of faith. This is worse even than idolatry, for the idolater does not deny G‑d, he merely denies His uniqueness.

Nonetheless as the Alter Rebbe wrote as a point of Halachic law10 as well as an inward Chassidic truth,11 “It is certain (that every Jew) will in the end return in repentance.”

This explains the phrase “he shall be brought to the priest.” The form of the verb carries with it an assurance for the future that even he who stands outside the three camps, who is isolated by his sin, will in the end turn to the “priest” in repentance. And this was the man whose very nature was to resist this return to oppose holiness, and join forces with the heathen world “outside the camp.” This is why he “shall be brought”—in the passive—for his return is contrary to his will.12

4. The Second Stage

The initiating cause in the awakening of the desire to return is not to be found in the man himself, but in the promise of G‑d that even if it requires “a mighty hand… I will rule over you.’’13

But if at first the impetus to return breaks in on him from the outside, it is the Divine will that ultimately it should became part of his deepest nature. Thus there is the further assurance that not only will he repent, but he will experience repentance as the truest expression of his own personality in all its facets: Will, intellect and feeling.

In the light of this we can see why, after the Torah stated that the leper “shall be brought to the priest,” it continues, “And the priest shall go forth out of the camp.”

The first stage of repentance, of “cleansing,” is the sudden revelation of G‑d coming in, as it were, from the outside. Because it has not yet become part of his own personality, this revelation is unrelated to the personal situation of the man. He is “brought” out of himself and his environment. But afterwards the priest comes to him: That is, his situation becomes important again, as he strives to translate his revelation into a cleansing of the whole circumstances of his life. And since the “cleansing” extends even to his environment, he achieves something that even the perfectly righteous could not: He sanctifies what lies “outside the camp,” where the righteous man has never been. Thus we say that repentance done from great love turns even willful sins into merits:14 it sanctifies even what lies outside the will of G‑d.

5. The Earlier Generations and the Present

Now, finally, we can see why an earlier age called this week’s Sidra Zot Tihyeh,“This shall be…” rather than, as we now call it, Metzora,“the law of the leper.”

Only in the Time to Come will we witness the ultimate transformation of darkness into light, of evil into goodness.

Thus the earlier generations, when this Time was as yet distant, they sensed more readily the idea that evil is conquered by something outside itself than that it should transform itself from within. They belonged to the stage where the leper is “brought,” against his will, to be cleansed, rather than to the second stage where the cleansing comes from within his own situation “outside the camp.” So they did not call the Sidra, “the leper,” because in their eyes he was not cleansed as himself but rather despite himself. Nonetheless, they knew the promise of the Future, and thus they called the Sidra “This shall be.” In other words, the “law of the leper”—the time when the leper of his own accord becomes part of G‑d’s law—was something that would be, in the World to Come.

But we, standing already in the shadow cast by the approaching Messianic Age, can make of “the leper” a name for a section of the Torah. We can already sense the time of the revelation of the good within the bad, the righteousness within those who stand “outside the camp.” The light is breaking through the wall that separates us from the Time to Come: The light of the age when “night will shine as day.”15

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VII pp. 100-104)