Parshat Tazria-Metzora 2018
What a depressing two parshot we read today, describing the ills of an affliction that can attack our bodies, our clothes or our homes. Tsara’at – mistranslated as leprosy – is presented as a somatic manifestation of a character or behavioral flaw in us. The descriptions of these manifestations are pretty gross but at the end of the day there is good news, and a few lessons we can draw from the phenomena.
The list of behaviors that are the alleged causes of tsara’at varies like the Hagada count of how many plagues the Egyptians suffered in Egypt and at the Reed Sea: it begins with 10 and jumps to 50 and 200. Here, some rabbis enumerate 6 possible behavioral causes, others 8 and others list 11. The most popular of them are lashon hara – badmouthing, like Miriam’s malicious gossip about Moshe, and pride – like King Uzziah who decided that being king was not enough – he wanted to be high priest as well. Other behaviors include stinginess or miserliness, stealing and murder.
Because the subject is so obscure, CHAZAL loaded tsara’t with dozens of meanings at all levels, from the simple pshat to the mystical. But all of them have a few things in common, and this is what we will examine.
First of all, a person comes down with tsara’at for a reason. In olden times it was the divine hand telling a person that he or she was out of line and had better get his house in order if he wants to live to a ripe old age in health and happiness.
Second, if a person heeds the warning and acts accordingly – and this is the good news – the manifestation will be removed. It will disappear. He will come back to health and hopefully, this time around he will get it right, or at least better than the first time.
Third, tsara’at, at least as envisaged by Chazal, is tit for tat. As Rabbi David Stav explains,
“In the case of lashon hara, derogatory speech, people tend to meddle in other people’s affairs. In the case of pride, people tend to show contempt for other people and traditions. They aren’t satisfied with what they have and they tend to act pretentiously toward those around them.
When people cannot satisfy their own needs from within their own environments, Rabbi Stav continues, they feel frustrated and try to find a way out. Having failed with their internal dealings, they look outwards. That is why this trait results in a disease that appears on the outside, namely various skin conditions.” And it also entails everyone seeing you being sent out of the camp. And everyone knows it’s because of some dirty secret (or not so secret) about you.
Then there’s tsara’at of the home. Perhaps you were stingy with your belongings – now, when tsara’at strikes your home you have to remove everything and everyone can see what you really have. Tit for tat.
We can all agree that it’s lucky that tsara’at is no longer in use. Judging by the alleged causes I mentioned, and judging by the behaviors we see around us – when we go shopping or to the beach or to a hotel or on the road – there would be whole hospitals, maybe even whole cities filled with tsara’at sufferers. And the Knesset – the Knesset and the government would be desolate. 99 percent of the members would be banished.
But imagine for a moment how our wired society WOULD deal with tsara’at if it appeared today. I can see our high-tech biomed companies producing products like: Tsara’atFree, Tsap the Tsara’at and other over the counter products that would appear endlessly on the media. Like psoriasis clinics at the Dead Sea, tsara’at clinics would pop up in Machtesh Ramon and Dimona or Kiryat Shmone offering inner light therapy, gossip-delete therapy, magnanimity workshops, modesty therapy.
Politicians would eventually jump on the bandwagon, and beat their breasts like every day was Yom Kippur and announce, “I was stingy, but no more.” Or: “I spoke disparagingly about my esteemed colleague in the Knesset, but now – no more.” Until next time. And then the Mashiach would come and it would all be over.
But on a more serious note, tsara’at means being an outcast, which is a much more prevalent problem than we may realize. Outcasts are not only refugees fleeing poverty, war or genocide. As Rabbi Justin David points out, it’s also those alienated individuals and groups that are marginalized in society: the poor, people with disabilities, the uneducated, the mentally ill.
There are two main differences between them and tsara’at sufferers. One is that tsara’at was temporary. If you recognized your problem, admitted it, paid the penalty (exile to the edges of the camp), and worked to correct it (by changing your habits), you could return. For today’s alienated, their problem is often a life sentence. And two, in most cases, these people are outcasts for no fault of their own.
Paradoxically, our treatment of these outliers would quite possibly have earned us a good case of tsara’at in those golden days of immediate divine punishment.
Let there be no mistake. There is still punishment for bad behaviors, but in many cases it is the recipients rather than the perpetrators who bear the brunt.
With much of the supposedly civilized world regressing to a more primitive age, perhaps we will also see the return of tsara’at. We just have to hope it does not take the form of a huge mushroom shaped cloud following a loud boom.
Shabbat Shalom and Yom Atzmaut Sameach