Tzaraat–The Spiritual Dermatological Disease”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, as well as parashat Metzorah that follows, are among the most challenging portions of our Torah. These parashiot deal with a strange disease known as tzaraat, the popular translation of which is leprosy. According to the Torah’s understanding, tzaraat cannot be leprosy. Leprosy is contagious, tzaraat after all is not. It is rather a physical malady caused by a spiritual imperfection, designed to show the spiritual transgressor that he must mend his ways.

According to Jewish tradition, the primary cause of tzaraat, is lashon hara, slander or speaking evil of others. In ancient times, when one would speak evil of another person, a rash or infection would appear on the belongings or on the body of the gossiper. In fact, our Sages point out that the word, metzorah, is a contraction of the Hebrew words motzi rah–speaking evil. The pattern that emerges from an in-depth study of the disease tzaraat, is that it is Divine punishment for one’s failure to regard the needs, and share the hurt, of others. The Stone commentary on the Artscroll Bible points out that through this dermatological affliction the Al-mighty, in effect, rebukes this anti-social behavior by isolating the transgressor from society so that he can experience the pain that he’s inflicted on others, and heal himself through repentance. Consequently, once the person who speaks evil is diagnosed with tzaraat by the Cohen (Priest), he is sent out of a camp of Israel, where only cattle and sheep are penned. The irony of course is that the transgressor now has no one with whom to speak! Clearly, the greatest punishment for a gossip is not to have an audience!

On the surface, the assertion that one can develop a terrifying skin rash from speaking evil seems quite preposterous. And frankly, I was, for many years, at a loss to explain the Torah’s contention until I came across a fascinating book authored by Lewis Thomas, entitled The Medusa and The Snail, published in 1979. Dr. Lewis Thomas is an award-winning medical author, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Medical School, was one of the foremost medical practitioners in America. His last professional position was President of the prestigious Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

In a fascinating chapter entitled “On Warts,” Thomas contends that among the most effective treatments for warts is hypnotic suggestion. You read correctly! Yes, warts can be hypnotized away.

I once spoke about Thomas’s claim publicly at a Shabbat service, and the two dermatologists in attendance simply rolled their eyes. One dermatologist argued vehemently that this was simply “hogwash,” and was determined to disabuse me of my fantasy. Not too long afterwards, she attended a dermatological convention. At the convention, 10 of the foremost dermatologists in the nation were featured on a panel and asked how to treat various dermatological diseases: venereal diseases, rashes, etc. When the issue of warts came up, the majority of the experts stated firmly that the most effective treatment for warts was hypnosis. Upon returning to the synagogue the doctor contritely shared with me the prevailing view of the experts.

Upon learning conclusively that hypnosis heals warts, the Torah’s claim that lashon harah leads to tzaraat became more credible. After all, if one can rid oneself of skin blemishes through proper thought–hypnosis, then one can develop a skin blemish through improper speech–lashon harah.

Another intriguing aspect of the tzaraat disease, is that the Torah informs us that only a Cohen, a priest, can diagnose the malady. No matter how many experts or doctors confirm the presence of the disease, one is not sent out of the community into exile until the Cohen himself utters the words, “Ta’may, Ta’may,” unclean, unclean. Even if the priest is a minor, a child, or mentally incompetent, to the extent that experts must instruct him to say the words “Ta’may Ta’may,” only then, is the violator punished.

Strange as it seems, only the mouth and voice of the Cohen determine the fate of the gossip–underscoring the arbitrariness of a word and the capriciousness of speech. An incompetent person (in this case the Cohen) may be told to simply say “Ta’may” about another person, and that person is rendered impure. As a result of the Cohen’s words (and not the expert who advised him), the disease is declared tzaraat. The violator is then exiled for at least one week from the camp, to live with the sheep and the cattle. Despite the fact that the Cohen may have no idea what he has said, he has determined the fate of another human being, by simply uttering the three letter Hebrew word, “Ta’may.” How dramatically this teaches us the power of the spoken a word. Clearly, an arbitrary word, can make or break a life.

It is for this reason that King Solomon affirms in the book of Proverbs (18:21), “Ma’vet V’chayim b’yad ha’lashon,” Death and life is in the “hands” of the tongue. A word, a wanton word, a capricious word, can make or break another person’s life.

Therefore, let us all resolve to try a little harder, and do a little better in the weeks and months to come, to guard our tongues from speaking evil, and to take heed not to hurt others with our wanton words.

May you be blessed.