“Insights to be Gleaned from the Metzorah, the Person Stricken with the Tzaraat Disease”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzorah, we learn of the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease and the details of the purification ritual for the Metzorah (the person stricken with the disease).

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Tazria, we learn of the symptoms of Tzaraat, the “spiritual dermatological disease” that is generally attributed to the specific sin of Lashon Harah, of speaking evil.

As we have previously learned (Tazria 5768-2008), the symptoms appear in three forms: שְׂאֵתS’ayt, סַפַּחַתSah’pah’chaht and בַּהֶרֶת Bah’heh’reht. S’ayt is a rising or bump in the skin. The rabbis learn that as a result of hubris or smugness, a person puts another person down in order to raise himself up.

Sah’pah’chat is a spreading skin inflammation. The rabbis suggest that a person who wishes to increase (“spread”) his possessions, belittles his competitor, saying that he is unskilled or not proficient in business.

Bah’heh’ret  means a lightening of color or a white inflammation. The rabbis suggest that it represents a person who attempts to show how bright or smart he is at the expense of the next person.

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his insightful volume Synagogue Companion, points to several important universal lessons to be gleaned from the Tzaraat disease and the ritual cleansing of the stricken person who has healed.

One of the key biblical accounts that serves as a proof-text confirming that Tzaraat is not a simple dermatological disease but a spiritual disease is the saga of Miriam who is afflicted with Tzaraat for speaking against Moses. The Torah, in Numbers 12:11-12, states that when Miriam was stricken, Aaron begged Moses, “Oh my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her [Miriam] not be as one dead who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

The Torah thus implies that a person stricken with Tzaraat whose skin peels away like a stillborn is considered dead. Other parallels to the death experience include that once the Metzorah is declared impure, he tears his clothing, lets his hair go loose and covers his lips, symbolically hiding from the rest of the world, like a person in mourning.

Through the duration of the ailment, the person stricken with Tzaraat is banished from society and is not permitted to live within the city limits. In fact, he is required to stay outside the camp, where the flocks of Israel are penned. It is hard to speak Lashon Harah when there is no audience except sheep and flocks. To keep others away from him, the Metzorah must continuously cry out, טָמֵא טָמֵא”,” “Impure, impure!”

Rabbi Angel points out that the ritual of purification from the disease described in parashat Metzorah closely resembles other key rituals that are recorded in the Torah. For example, once the Tzaraat symptoms are healed, the former gossiper must appear at the Tabernacle and sacrifice two birds. One bird is designated as a sacrifice to G-d, while the other is set free, strongly paralleling the ritual of the scapegoat–the two goats that are brought for atonement on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).

During the cleansing ritual, the priest sprinkles the blood of the sacrifices mixed with cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool, which strongly resembles the ritual of the Parah Adumah–the red heifer (Numbers 19), which serves to purify a person who has come into contact with death. In this case, the Metzorah himself is considered symbolically dead.

The final part of the purification process involves the sprinkling of the blood onto the extremities of the healed Metzorah–his ears, fingers and toes (Leviticus 14:14-17). This particular ritual resembles the consecration ceremony of the priests for the Temple service (Leviticus 9).

Rabbi Angel suggests that these three rituals were meant to achieve three critical purposes in the healing of the Metzorah.

The gossiper is not only to achieve Teshuva with the two birds, which is similar to the repentance achieved by Israel through the two goats, he is also to be purified through a ritual that is similar to the Red Heifer. But, Rabbi Angel points out that purifying one’s self is not enough. The Metzorah must strive even higher, and attempt to achieve קְדוּשָׁהKedusha, holiness and sanctity. With the sprinkling of the blood on the different parts of the Metzorah’s body, the sinner who has now been cleansed and purified, rises to a significantly higher level, similar to the sanctified priests who perform the Temple service.

The Metzorah acts like a mourner who, through introspection, mourns for himself. In this way, he not only cleanses and purifies himself, he actually pursues a process that brings him to a better place than he was before the sinful action began, to a place of elevated sanctity and holiness.

We see that the entire concept of Tzaraat appears, at first blush, rather primitive. However, Tzaraat, like many other obscure concepts that appear in the Torah, when studied carefully, is deeply insightful and convey a message of timeless importance to all of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,  was observed this year on Sunday night, April 23rd, and all day Monday, April 24th, 2017.