“Heavenly Reminders”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, focuses on the Biblical malady known as צָרַעַת–Tzara’at, often incorrectly identified as leprosy.

Although Tzara’at had physical, dermatological symptoms, according to tradition, Tzara’at, is a spiritual disease resulting from לְשׁוֹן הָרָע–Lashon Harah, speaking evil (Tazria 5763-2003). Tzara’at manifests itself on the human body, on clothing and appears on the walls of homes as well.

In order to properly identify the malady, the inspection must be performed by an expert, usually a Kohen, priest. As we noted previously (Tazria 5763-2003), if the Kohen is not sufficiently knowledgeable, a physician or one who is well-versed in identifying the disease could do so, but the sick person could not be quarantined or sent out of the camp until the priest himself pronounced him either טָהוֹר (Tahor)– pure or טָמֵא (Tameh)- impure, or determined if an incubation period was required, and ordered a seven-day quarantine.

One of the symptoms of Tzara’at as recorded in Leviticus 13:38, was בֶּהָרֹת לְבָנֹת, white spots. There are four shades of white spots that are associated with Tzara’at, which the Kohen must identify in order to render the stricken person impure. However, the Torah notes, Leviticus 13:39, וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן, וְהִנֵּה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרָם בֶּהָרֹת, כֵּהוֹת לְבָנֹת, בֹּהַק הוּא פָּרַח בָּעוֹר, טָהוֹר הוּא, the Kohen shall look and behold!–on the skin on the flesh are dim white spots, it is a בֹּהַק (Bohak, a simple skin discoloration) that has erupted on the skin, it is pure.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his collection of insights on the weekly parasha known as “Darash Moshe,” questions why it is necessary for a person who has a simple skin discoloration to go to the Kohen for a diagnosis. Even if the person is himself a knowledgeable Torah scholar or a dermatologist and can easily diagnose the discoloration as a non-defiling Bohak, the Kohen must be called in for his opinion.

Rabbi Feinstein suggests that any person who suffers a skin discoloration, especially one that is easily mistaken for Tzara’at, must seek to determine the cause of the discoloration. Even a benign discoloration must be investigated. (This should serve as a reminder for everybody to schedule their annual body scan at a doctor or dermatologist). The Talmud in Brachot 5a, records that those visited by suffering, must always check their deeds, to make certain that their suffering is not a result of Divine punishment for possible incorrect actions.

Rabbi Feinstein explains why even a victim afflicted with a Bohak that is definitely pure, must go to the Kohen. The Kohanim, who serve not only as clergy but also serve as the educational officers of Israel, are in a position to help identify the improper action that might have caused the discoloration, and help the victim improve his/her ways.

Rabbi Feinstein cites a fascinating Talmudic statement found in Erchin 16b, where the Rabbis teach that any frustrating experience, even misplacing something of insignificant value momentarily, is considered suffering. These upsetting experiences may very well be a message from the Al-mighty. If the message is not taken seriously, greater suffering will soon come.

In the summer of 1985, I was sent to Israel by the Avi Chai Foundation to do research on various Israeli outreach organizations.

One of the most popular Israeli outreach organizations, “Arachim,” was holding a weekend seminar for non-religious Jews in Jerusalem. I arrived at the hotel where the seminar was being conducted on Saturday night.

I found it odd that the person whom the organization assigned to serve as my guide was a rather overweight, frumpy religious looking fellow, whose shirt was hanging out of his pants, and walked with a limp. When he told me that he was going to be one of the featured speakers later in the program, I was even more puzzled.

It was probably around midnight when this fellow, with his black hat and beard, his tzitzit hanging out, began to address the non-religious attendees, mesmerizing them with his personal story.

He identified himself as a former Israeli Air Force jet pilot, who was shot down on a mission over Syria. One of his feet was terribly mangled in the crash and had to be amputated, if I recall correctly, without anesthesia.

He was thrown into a prison dungeon where he had to change the bandages himself, because the prison guards who were revolted by the wound that was infected and oozing pus, refused to touch him. Apparently, other Israeli soldiers were also captured at this time and he was imprisoned in a cell together with 3 or 4 other Israeli P.O.W.s.

None of the Israelis were religious, but they knew that the Passover Holiday was rapidly approaching. Somehow, they managed to get some wine, and I believe some matzah, and on Passover eve they sat around at a makeshift seder attempting to recall from memory whatever they remembered from their family seders. It was at that time that the Air Force pilot vowed to himself that if he were ever released from prison and returned home, he would begin to take his faith more seriously.

Eventually, he was released, but soon forgot about his personal vow. He was simply too overjoyed to be back with his family, his wife and his children, to remember, and he continued to live a very secular life.

I do not recall the exact details, but soon after disturbing things began to occur. It might have been a minor car accident or a child who fell and broke an arm, or a small fire that started in his home, whatever it was, it was enough to cause him to begin questioning why these bad things were happening to him. He then remembered the vow that he had taken while he was in the Syrian prison.

His story was truly captivating, not only to me, but to all the secular Jews who were listening, enraptured by his fascinating story about how he became religious.

It is from parashat Tazria that we learn that we dare not disregard even a simple Bohak, a non-defiling discoloration of the skin. G-d continuously sends us messages. We must keep our eyes and ears open constantly to recognize them, hear them, and properly respond to them.

Please note: This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, April 8th and 9th, 2016.