It (the tzaraat) has all turned white – he is clean (13:13).
Firstly, a brief note on tzaraat. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not ‘leprosy’ as we understand it. He also demonstrates that the reasons for quarantines and, in confirmed cases, exclusion from the ‘camp’ are not to prevent the spread of disease. Among the many proofs brought: if the malady covers the entire body he is clean, but if the skin begins to heal he becomes a metzora. If the reason for confinement was because of the danger of the disease spreading, he would surely be excluded when the symptoms are most obvious!
Following the introduction, what is tzaraat, if not a conventional disease? Why should a small amount of healing of the tzaraat symptoms lead to a person being declared a metzora? And why should a complete cover of tzaraat render a person spiritually clean?
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 168) notes the connection that Chazal make between tzaraat and its spiritual root causes: slander, tale-bearing and other sins in human relationships, as enumerated in the Talmud (Arachin 16a). The Chinuch writes that the detailed laws applying to the individual afflicted with tzaraat are:
To fix in our souls that G-d’s Providence applies to every human being individually… to the slightest details, and so it is with a sufferer of tzaraat during the days of his confinement. If he repents, then purifying signs will appear and he will be healed. If he does not repent, then the opposite will happen.
Developing this idea, tzaraat is not so much a punishment, as a warning from the Almighty. As Moses said to the Israelites before his death: Like a father who chastises his son, so… G-d chastises you (Deut. 8:5). G-d brings suffering on individuals so that they may reflect on their past behavior and correct those faulty character traits for the future. The purpose of tzaraat then is to help a person do teshuva for sins in his relationship with other people. His mandatory exclusion from contact with others until the tzaraat has healed will give him ample time to reflect on where he has gone wrong in the past, and resolve to improve his conduct in the future.
Why then, should a small amount of tzaraat be ritually unclean, but a complete spread be regarded as clean?
The discussion above showed that occurrence of tzaraat is hashgacha peratit – Divine Intervention in the life of the individual. However it is also a warning, and as such is only effective if it is listened to. This is expanded below.
The Talmud derives that shaming a person in public is one of the most serious of all transgressions (Bava Metzia 59a, based on Gen. 38:24). Notwithstanding, the Rambam rules that it is permitted for a teacher to shame a student in public if it is absolutely necessary for his spiritual progress (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:5). If the teacher is not able to correct the student’s conduct in a less extreme way he has the discretion to embarrass his student publicly. As proof, the Rambam cites the Prophets who used public rebuke in getting their message across to those whom G-d ordered them to bring His Word.
This idea helps us to understand the meaning of the different degrees of the tzaraat symptoms.
The text in the two Parashiot dealing with tzaraat imply that very small amounts of tzaraat were to be dealt with discreetly. The suspected symptoms were shown only to the Priest. The metzora was excluded to a place where he would not be in view of the general public. And when the symptoms finally disappeared, the korban metzora (including two birds, as opposed to a cow or a sheep) was small in size, so that it would not draw the public’s attention. Nevertheless the metzora went through a very meaningful, if unpleasant, spiritual experience. He was excluded from the general public – he needed time to think about his misdeeds. And the nature of the korban (offering) was in itself designed to induce humility – a person who realized his own problems would be less likely to comment on and gossip about the shortcomings of others. As the Talmud (Arachin 16b) points out, each of the various components of the korban metzora symbolized the haughtiness of the past and the need to behave more modestly in the future. In other words G-d is urging the metzora to repent without shaming him in the process.
Not all people could become aware of their social misdeeds through the ‘discreet treatment’. There are those individuals who would not correct their faults even after following the ‘discreet’ path described above. The Almighty Himself knows who those individuals are: as King David put it, G-d “ creates… their heart, (and) understands their deeds” (Psalms 33:15).
Therefore this type of person had to go through Divinely ordained public embarrassment so that he would put his misdeeds right. By being completely covered in tzaraat symptoms he would be ritually pure. But by being pure he would not have the privilege of being secluded by the Kohen. Instead his tzaraat would be on view to the public – they would know that the Almighty singled him out as a gossip or slanderer. He would therefore have been publicly shamed by the Almighty as a means of correcting his misdeeds.
In summary, a key to understanding the Parasha is the notion that the laws of metzora are the Creator’s intervention in enabling the individual to correct faults in attitudes towards others. The form that the tzaraat takes in each case is varied to the personality of the individual, which only the Almighty fully understands.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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