“Some Important Lessons That We Learn from the Ancient Biblical Tzara’at

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The primary theme of this week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, is the ancient Biblical disease tzara’at that would afflict a person who spoke lashon hara, evil, about others. The entire subject is rather obscure and seemingly irrelevant. In some of my previous Divrei Torah I have attempted to expound on the wisdom that is to be found in the rituals and meanings that are associated with this ancient disease. On this occasion, however, I wish to share with you some important lessons that may be gleaned from the nuances of the Biblical texts that are found in parashat Tazria.

Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883, the founder and spiritual father of the Mussar/Ethics movement) points out the intriguing juxtaposition of parashat Tazria with the previous parasha, parashat Shemini. He notes that the Torah in parashat Shemini lists the various species of animals and birds that are permitted and forbidden to be eaten. Immediately following this list of forbidden foods is the portion that deals with tzara’at, the disease that afflicts the human being who speaks lashon hara (evil). Rabbi Salanter points out that, unfortunately, most people are far more concerned about eating forbidden foods and animals that were not properly slaughtered, than they are about “eating” human beings alive by speaking lashon hara about them. Declares Rabbi Salanter, that is why parashat Tazria follows parashat Shemini, to teach that “eating” a human being is to be regarded with no less severity than eating a worm!

In Leviticus 13:3 we read: “V’ra’ah ha’Cohen et ha’neh’gah,” the Cohen (priest) shall look at the mark on the skin of the flesh, and determine whether it is indeed the disease tzara’at or a general blemish. The Mishnah in Negaim 2:5 states: “Kol ha’neh’gah’im adam ro’eh, chootz mee’nig’ay atz’mo.” A person can inspect all afflictions, except his own. Our rabbis explain that most human beings are able to quickly discern the shortcomings and failures of others, but find it exceedingly difficult to see their own shortcomings. This is why the Torah requires that an impartial person (a Cohen) most come to inspect a suspected blemish. We see, all too often, people who are mean, who anger easily, who are not charitable, who accuse others of having these very defects, and are totally oblivious to their own shortcomings. That is why every person needs his own Cohen–a mentor or a friend, who is not afraid to tell him/her what their own personal shortcomings may be.

In Leviticus 13:3, the verse ends with the words: “V’ra’ah’hoo ha’Cohen v’tee’may o’to,” and the Cohen shall look at it [the blemish] and declare him contaminated. The obvious question is why is the phrase and the “Cohen shall see” repeated both at the beginning of the verse and at its conclusion? Rabbi Y.Y. Trunk of Kutna, (cited in Itturei Torah) is said to have responded to this unusual sentence structure by stating that we should learn from the dual repetition that when we seek to evaluate a person, we should not only look at their shortcomings, at the place of their affliction, but rather look at the whole person, and make a special effort to inspect each person’s good qualities. That is why it says that the Cohen will “look” at the affliction, and then “see” the entire person. It is easy to focus on people’s frailties. But it is often helpful to place the negatives in context–by looking at the whole person. One may discover that in the overall picture, the good qualities of a person often outweigh the negatives. Consequently, those who truly desire to help their neighbors will always try to put the failings in context because of the overwhelming good that can be found in that same person.

In Leviticus 13:3, we learn that after the Cohen’s first inspection, he may be unable to discern for certain whether the blemish is truly the disease tzara’at. In such ambiguous cases we are told that the afflicted person is put in quarantine for seven days. In Leviticus 13:6 we learn that after incubating for seven days the Cohen looks at the blemish again. If the Cohen sees that the blemish has dimmed and has not spread on the skin, he declares him “tahor“–pure–it is a skin disease of some sort, but not tzara’at. The person then immerses his garments and is considered pure.

Our rabbis teach that there are two ways of looking at an affliction that has not spread. One can proclaim that the fact that the blemish has not completely healed clearly indicates that the disease is still present. On the other hand, one can look at the infection and say the fact that it has not spread is a positive sign–obviously the blemish is in the process of healing. Both these assessments are objectively truthful and not exaggerations, but each person sees the affliction from his own perspective. The Torah in effect proclaims that the Cohen, who should be a person of sensitivity and compassion, is to regard the fact of not spreading as a positive sign, and declare the infected person pure.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1767-1827, Chassidic leader of P’schis’cha) used to cite the verse in Song of Songs 1:4 “Mosh’chay’nee ah’cha’reh’cha nah’roo’tza,” draw me, and I will run after you. Citing the Talmud in Kiddushin 22b, Reb Bunim noted that there are two ways to attract a living animal. One way is to call after the animal, the other is to hit it with a stick so that it runs ahead. Says Rav Bunim, G-d also has two ways to attract the Jewish people to him: through afflictions or by calling out to them in love so that they respond in repentance (found in Mayana Shel Torah, by Alexander Zusha Friedman, p. 73.).

We pray that the Jewish people will hear G-d’s calling and respond to His beckoning of love, so that we need not be afflicted, and that our lives will be enriched by the message of His Torah. May we all diligently study His message and transmit it to the rest of the world, so that very soon all of humankind will respond to G-d’s loving call.

May you be blessed.