“Looking at Tzara’at from a Different Perspective”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s double parshiyot, Tazria and Metzora, deal almost exclusively with the issue of the tzara’at, צָרַעַת , disease, sometimes incorrectly referred to as the dermatological ailment known as leprosy.

According to rabbinic interpretation, the tzara’at disease is a social/spiritual disease that results from lashon hara, לְשׁוֹן הָרָע –speaking evil. The infected tzara’at area can appear on a person’s clothes, a person’s house and, of course, on a person’s body. (See Tazria 5765-2005)

The rabbis point to two instances in the Torah where people are stricken with tzara’at. Best known, is the instance (Numbers 12:1-15) where Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, Moses. Miriam is stricken with tzara’at and is required to stay outside the camp for seven days. In the second instance, Exodus 4:6-7, one of the three omens that G-d gives Moses to show to Pharaoh and the Jews, is tzara’at. The rabbis maintain that the reason that Moses is stricken with tzara’at, is because he had spoken against the Jewish people, insisting that they will not listen to him.

The basic symptom of the tzara’at disease is the appearance of a small white patch on the skin. The patch appears in one of three forms: se’et, שְׂאֵת , a rising or swelling; sapachat, סַפַּחַת, a scab; baheret, בַהֶרֶת, a bright spot.

The Chatam Sofer says that the se’et, the rising, results when one person puts another down in order to raise himself up. The sapachat, the scab, results from a person who wants to increase his possessions and says that the other is not good at his business or skill. Baheret, the bright spot, results when one wants to show how smart he is, at the expense of the next person.

There are many insights and meanings that are conveyed through the tzara’at disease about the evils of lashon hara, and the harm that results from a loose tongue and evil speech.

Two very sensitive insights about tzara’at may be found in a newly published volume by Sivan Rahav-Meir, entitled #Parasha: Weekly Insights from a Leading Israeli Journalist.

Rahav-Meir comments on the verse in Leviticus 13:11, צָרַעַת נוֹשֶׁנֶת הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ , it is an old leprosy on the skin of his flesh. Rahav-Meir criticizes what she calls the “new style” of communication that has seized the world, requiring all to show their “true selves,” the good and the bad. Politics, reality shows and media expect everyone to be “authentic” and “to let it all hang out.” There is little or no room for discretion, no self-control, only impulsiveness and displays of raw emotions.

Rahav-Meir emphasizes that the Torah has an entirely different approach to life: “The Torah demands that we strike a fine balance between truth and peace…” and that sometimes, “peace takes priority over truth.”

Of course, Judaism doesn’t defend lying or advocate for it. But there are certain times when it is preferable to refrain from saying the whole truth, rather than reveal things that are hurtful and harmful and would be of no benefit. Rahav-Meir concludes, “When we speak politely and respect others, when we think once, twice, or even three times before we speak so as not to insult someone, we may end up with fewer ‘likes on our Facebook page,’ but we are building the foundations of a more likeable, healthy society.”

Continuing her comments on contemporary society where lashon hara, evil and gossip, dominate the headlines and garner great attention, Rahav-Meir cites the verse in Leviticus 13:46: כָּל יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ יִטְמָא טָמֵא הוּא, בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ , all the days that the affliction is upon him [the slanderer], he shall remain unclean. He is unclean: he shall dwell in isolation, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Ours is a society addicted to lashon hara. If a notable person writes or says something indiscreet, it almost automatically becomes a scandal. All the newspapers, all of social media, all the headlines focus for a while on this new scandal, until a newer, even more outrageous, statement is made by a different celebrity actor, politician, or broadcaster that seizes the limelight.

Rahav-Meir maintains that the Torah has an entirely different approach. The gossiper and the defamer are not to be given a soapbox, and certainly not given the limelight or even fifteen minutes of fame. The greatest punishment for a gossiper is isolation. And that is why, in ancient Israel, the person who was diagnosed with the tzara’at disease by the priest, was sent out of the camp. After all, it’s impossible to speak lashon hara with the sheep that are usually stationed there.

It is the priest who diagnoses the violator, not the doctor, because tzara’at is a spiritual disease that results from a lack of spiritual purity. It is not a conventional illness or a medical issue.

Undoubtedly, we all need to try harder to nip lashon hara in the bud, at least in our own lives, by closing down the outlets that allow free expression without limitation. We need to isolate those who seem to thrive on lashon hara and calumny. We all need to strive harder to be holy.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, April 18) is observed this year on the 4th of Iyar, Wednesday evening, April 18th, and all day April, 19th.