Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat Hachodesh, 1st Nisan 5776, 9th April 2016
How is tzara’at different from all the other afflictions that have afflicted us? Other afflictions are the result of external forces impinging upon us from the outside in, whereas tsara’at impinges upon us from the inside out. This week and next we read two of the least understood parshot of the Torah – exceeded in mystification only by Parshat Parah – the red heifer – that we read about in last week’s maftir.
What is tsara’at? Our usual translation of leprosy would not seem to apply because, as we see in the parsha, it can appear in different forms (“a swelling, a rash or a discoloration which develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body”). We read at the end of today’s parsha that it can appear in clothing as well. And next week we will read that it can appear in the walls, stones, plaster or dirt of a home. That’s not the leprosy we grew up with in the movies and novels about Africa.
The Torah makes no mention of doctors, yet there had to be illnesses. In the 40 years in the desert a whole generation died; all of those who exited Egypt and were over age 20 – let’s say at least 400,000 of the 600,000 who left? Some must have been sick. These details are considered not important but the question remains: who treated the people?
In our parsha the person called in to deal with tsara’at was the priest, the cohen. He was the most suitable person because all afflictions of any kind were seen as the hand of God and who better to divine and remove the affliction than the person closest to God in terms of service: the cohen.
As Rabbi E. Goldstein points out, the priests were the GPs of the day. They were called in to see the symptoms and to understand what a person “had done” to incur the disease. When they proclaimed a person “unclean”, this was the medical diagnosis of the day, like cancer or shingles, not a value judgment.
In many cases the person was placed in quarantine, outside the camp, with no bikur cholim – visiting the sick, one of the great mitzvoth that we can perform. This is because tsara’at was different. It required isolation. It was not infectious or contagious in the usual sense of the word but it did indicate something wrong inside the person, something that the person had to work out by himself, without distractions from others.
Tsara’at in rabbinic lore is associated with lashon hara – gossip-mongering, speaking ill of others, because immediately after Miriam spoke ill of Moshe, she was afflicted with tsara’at. (By the way, in her case, it was very probably the leprosy we know – her skin turned totally white, and it was considered a death sentence.) And so the connection was made – tsara’at – motsi shem ra – speaking ill of another. This, by the way, may help to explain another stage of the treatment. The afflicted person must call out “Impure Impure” for all to hear. Rachel Rosenthal suggests that this might be an eye for an eye – just as the metzora spoke ill of others, now he has to speak ill of himself.
This prescription for isolation and quarantine probably has some value. Today, a person suffering from some psychosomatic illness might be sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist who would help that person to unlock the emotional problem pent-up in his or her heart or other organs and wreaking havoc with the physical body.
Here, the person is sent out for a week. It’s a little like sending a kid to his room used to be for some misbehavior and telling him: think about what you did and when you understood you can come out (of course today that is ridiculous because kids have their smartphones and computers and games in their rooms and would like nothing better than to be locked up there!).
During a week where nothing else could be done, the person could meditate on his or her actions and clean out the mental shmutz, something like a session with a mental health professional today. Even if it had only a placebo effect it could probably work because the people believed it would.
How we view the world and our obligations within our religion have undergone serious changes. This has had the effect of loosening the ties that bind us and also loosening the morals that are supposed to guide us. And the results are obvious when we watch or read the news.
But one aspect of these obligations has remained relatively strong – our affinity to Pesach and specifically to the seder. Today we read Parshat Hachodesh, in which the Israelites received specific instructions of how to prepare for Pesach in Egypt and for the exodus. The words ring out, the stories we learned in our youth and the seders we have attended over the years with the songs and recounting of events – create a wave of associations that generally strengthen our feelings of belonging to our people and our past. We may rue that these seder Jews do not feel close to many other elements of the holiday and to Jewish tradition, but we can at least be thankful for what we have.
However we feel about the issue, the fact is that Pesach is regarded as the time for a new start. It’s spring, time for cleaning out the house. So why not get rid of moldy chametz-like notions and approaches that make our lives more cumbersome and create a pseudo-tsara’at. Matza – flour and water without any additives – reminds us also that it’s time to return to the basics and to what is really important.