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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tazria/Metzora, Tzaraas and Jewish suffering
Contrary to common belief, tzaraas is not a bodily disease but rather a spiritual punishment. There are three kinds of tzaraas: the first kind affects the wrongdoer's body; the second affects his garments; and the third affects his house. Although the order of the three afflictions are mentioned in the Torah first on the body, then on the garment and then on the house, in fact the actual order of appearance would be the reverse. Since the slanderer caused the breakdown of marriages and friendships it is only fitting that he should be left in isolation to experience the feeling of loneliness he caused by his conduct. There are slanderers in the gentile nations, so why are the Jewish people singled out for punishment? Since the primary cause for tzaraas is slandering and gossiping, why is no one afflicted today? As long as the Jewish nation was complete in their closeness to G'd, He would allow His spirit to dwell amongst them and beautify their bodies, their garments and their houses. Only individuals who G'd supervises with a personal supervision will "merit" to be afflicted with tzaraas. We are chosen because G'd expects a higher conduct of living in every aspect of our lives. With this insight, we can better understand the harshness of the Divine conduct regarding the Jewish people in general and specifically with righteous individuals who often seem to suffer more than others.
This week's Torah portions deal primarily with the laws of "tzaraas". Contrary to common belief, tzaraas is not a bodily disease but rather a spiritual punishment to remind the afflicted person to repent from any wrongdoing. The one who is afflicted with tzaraas is called a "metzora". The Talmud (Erchin 15b) explains that a metzora is afflicted with tzaraas due to his gossiping and slandering about others. This is hinted in the actual name metzora which is a combination of the two words "motzi" and "ra", meaning one who spreads evil (talk). The Talmud (Ibid 16a) further teaches that the affliction could also be a punishment for other sins, such as bloodshed, immorality, robbery, etc. Even false oaths, pride and selfishness could bring about the punishment of tzaraas.
There are three kinds of tzaraas: the first kind affects the wrongdoer's body, as it says: (Vayikra 13:2) "A person who has on the skin of his flesh … and it turns into an affliction of tzaraas." It strikes in various forms depending on which part of the body that is affected, as outlined at length in this week's portion (see Ibid 13:1-47). The second kind of tzaraas affects his garment, as it says (Ibid 48) "And a garment that has on it the affliction of tzaraas." The third kind shows up on the wrongdoer's house, as it says (Ibid 14:34) "When you come to the land of Canaan … I will place an affliction of tzaraas on a house in the land of your possessions."
The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 17:4) explains that although the order of the three afflictions are mentioned in the Torah in the order of body, garment and house, in fact the actual order of appearance would be the reverse. G'd would initially remind the wrongdoer with an affliction on his house. If this did not bring the person to repent, then the affliction would appear on his garment. If even that would not help, then as a last resort the body would be afflicted. If he would repent the affliction would disappear. If he would still not get the message he would have to dwell outside the camp in isolation (see Vayikra 13:46).
Rashi (Ibid) quotes the sages of the Talmud (Erchin 16b) who ask why the one afflicted with tzaraas is punished with isolation more than any other contaminated person? The Talmud answers that since this slanderer caused the breakdown of marriages and friendships it is only fitting that he should be left in isolation to experience the feeling of loneliness he caused by his conduct.
Jews suffer more
Our sages teach that the laws of tzaraas would only apply to a Jewish person, his garments and his house and only in the land of Israel (see Gittin 82a and Negaim 12:4). We may wonder why this is so? Why does G'd not punish the gentiles in the same way that He punishes the Jewish people? A similar question could be asked regarding our sages' interpretation of Moses' reaction when he found out that Dathan and Aviram had slandered him to Pharaoh. Moses said (Shemos 2:14) "So the matter has been revealed." On a simple level this refers to the revealing to Pharaoh that Moses killed the Egyptian. However, Rashi brings that our sages interpret this to mean that Moses exclaimed "now it has been revealed to me why the Jews are suffering more than the other nations. If there are slanderers amongst them they truly deserve this." This seems strange. Are there no slanderers in the other nations? So why are the Jewish people singled out for punishment?
We may further ask why do we not find anyone afflicted with tzaraas now-a-days? For sure, we are not above the conduct of earlier generations, especially as our sages teach that the primary cause of our exile is also due to gossip and slandering and as long as we have not corrected this wrongdoing we will not merit the final redemption. So since the primary cause for tzaraas is slandering and gossiping, why is no one afflicted today?
We find the answer in the commentaries of the Ramban and the Sforno. The Ramban (Vayikra 13:47) elaborates on the fact that the afflictions of tzaraas are not natural phenomena. Rather, as long as the Jewish nation is complete in their closeness to G'd, He will allow His spirit to dwell amongst them and beautify their bodies, their garments and their houses. In such a time, says the Ramban, if an individual sinned there would be a physical manifestation appearing on either his body, garment or house. This showed that the Divine spirit had been removed from this individual and would be a reminder to the transgressor to repent. If he did not repent and had to be in isolation, this would give the transgressor an opportunity to reflect on his anti-social behaviour.
At the end of Parashas Tazria (Ibid 13:47) the Sforno explains that G'd would only afflict a person with tzaraas when he is on the spiritual level to understand the Divine message behind the affliction. The majority of the world's population would take no notice of such a Divine message. Only individuals who G'd supervises with a personal supervision will "merit" to be afflicted with tzaraas. Not only the other nations of the world, but even a big part of the Jewish nation, do not live a life that would allow them to tune in to direct Divine messages. With these people G'd conducts Himself with a more general supervision. Says the Sforno, when G'd chose the Jewish nation, as it says (Devarim 7:6) "G'd chose you to be for Him a treasured nation from all the nations that are on the face of the earth", He did so with the expectation that the Jewish people would live up to be worthy inheritors of our Patriarchs who acknowledged and lived with a constant awareness of G'd. The Sforno concludes that only at a time when the majority of the Jewish people live up to this expectation will individuals who transgress certain laws of the Torah be afflicted with tzaraas.
This new insight teaches us what it means to be a member of the Chosen People. We are chosen because G'd expects a higher conduct of living in every aspect of our lives, as befitting the offspring of our great ancestors. But with this expectation comes an added responsibility and a special conduct and supervision scrutinizing our every deed and misdeed. The Prophet Amos says (3:2) "Of all the families of the earth, I only lovingly acknowledge you. Therefore, I chastise you for your sins." The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 4a) brings that a group of gentiles asked Rav Safro, "Does one chastise the one that one loves?" Rabbi Avihu compared this to someone who has to punish two people, one of them his personal good friend the other his enemy. His friend he will punish bit by bit, but his enemy he will give the whole punishment in one instant. Concluded the Rabbi, so it is with the nation of Israel, in G'd's great love for his chosen nation, He will punish them as they go along so that at the end of days they will have a clean slate to enter the World to Come. On the other hand, G'd will leave the gentile nations alone in this world and wait with their punishment till the World to Come. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander explains further that even when G'd decides to punish other nations in this world, He waits until their measure is "full", so to speak, and gives them one major punishment rather than minor punishments along the way (see Rashi Bereishis 15:16).
With this insight, we can better understand the harshness of the Divine conduct regarding the Jewish people in general and specifically with righteous individuals who often seem to suffer more than others. We can only hope and pray that G'd is His great mercy will take pity on us, His beloved children, who have suffered so long in our exile and find the time ripe to send us the final redemption with the coming of Mashiach soon in our days.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network