The names of the Torah readings were chosen not because they are the first — or close to the first — words of the Torah reading, but because they convey the theme of the Torah reading as a whole.

It appears difficult to resolve this concept with the name of this week’s Torah reading, Tazria, for the word tazria and the predominant subject of the reading, the affliction of tzaaras, appear to be direct opposites. Tazria means “conceive;” referring to the generation of new life.

Tzaraas, by contrast, refers to a unique affliction. Though commonly translated as leprosy, it is not analogous to that physical ailment. Though it affects a person’s body, it primarily has to do with his soul. In that vein, our Sages say: “One afflicted with tzaraas is considered as dead.” Why then is a name associated with the conception of life given to a Torah reading whose primary subject appears to be of an opposite nature?

The resolution of the question centers on the concept that a person is afflicted with tzaraas as punishment for speaking lashon hora, slanderous gossip. Now reward and punishment is one of the fundamental concepts of the Torah. Indeed, Rambam considers it as one of his Thirteen Principles of Faith. At the core of the issue is the axiom that a person must take responsibility for his conduct. He must realize that his deeds have consequences. G‑d watches his every act and rewards a person or punishes him as his conduct warrants.

When, however, G‑d metes out punishment, it is not for the sake of retribution. He is not a vengeful G‑d who seeks to cause a person suffering. On the contrary, He is compassionate and merciful. If He metes out punishment, that punishment is itself an act of mercy. The intent is not only that the suffering cleanses the blemish that the person brought about through sin and causes it to be absolved. Instead, the intent is that the punishment serves as cue for the sinner to change his conduct and correct the inner fault that led to the sin.

The punishment of tzaraas is a classic illustration of this principle. As mentioned, tzaraas came as punishment for slanderous gossip, the type of talk that drives wedges between people. As a consequence, one afflicted with tzaraas is compelled to experience solitude. “He must dwell alone, outside the camp of his dwelling.”

In this way, he will understand the error of his ways and he will change. The punishment itself will be the catalyst for his personal growth.

Herein lies the connection with Tazria, the generation of new life. The Torah reading teaches that there are times when life is generated through positive activities. And there are other instances, when a negative situation, even one as severe as tzaraas, will stimulate the beginning of new life and energy. From this instance, we can extrapolate to other situations. Even if circumstances appear negative, we should appreciate them as cues from Above to initiate a new beginning.

Looking to the Horizon

The concluding prophecies of the Book of Isaiah employ birth as an analogy for the coming of Mashiach. What is the difference between an unborn fetus and an infant who has emerged into the world? They both are alive. But the fetus does not function as an independent organism. It does not eat or breathe on its own and its perceptions are limited to the environment of its mother’s womb.

The infant, by contrast, functions independently and it is sensitive to all the stimuli in the world outside of it. True, it needs time to grow and develop, but from the moment, it emerges from the womb, it is living on its own.

These factors enable us to understand the analogue: mankind’s emergence in the era of Mashiach. Throughout the centuries of exile — and to a certain extent, even before that, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem — mankind has not been aware of the true nature of the world. Like a fetus in its mother’s womb, its view of reality has been drastically limited, because it has seen only the material dimensions of existence, without perceiving the spiritual life-force.

As a result, like a fetus, mankind has always been taking; functioning as a recipient of Divine bounty rather than living on its own. As the Divine potential within the world surfaces in the era of Mashiach, man will emerge with a new identity. Hence, Mashiach’s coming is described as birth.