“Finding the Silver Lining”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Tazria, the first of this week’s double parashiot Tazria-Metzorah, we encounter the laws of צָרָעַת Tzaraat, the dermatological disease (sometimes mistaken for leprosy), that, according to tradition, afflicted those who spoke לָשׁוֹן הָרָע “lashon harah,” evil about others.

The Torah, in Leviticus 13:2 states that G-d spoke to Moses saying: אָדָם כִּי יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת, וְהוּבָא אֶל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים, If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot and it will become a Tzaraat affliction on the skin of his flesh, that person shall be brought to Aaron, the Priest, or to one of his sons.

The priest shall look at the affliction and determine whether or not the person has the Tzaraat disease. If the Kohen confirms that the person is indeed afflicted with the disease, he declares the sticken person impure. The victim is initially sent away, outside of the camp of Israel, for a period of one week. If the disease begins to heal, the victim must again wait, and eventually go through an elaborate cleansing ritual. (Tazria 5763-2003)

Struck by the use of the word, וְהָיָה “V’hah’yah,” in the text, some of the commentators point to the Midrash, Bereshith Rabbah 43:3, which states that wherever the word “V’hah’yah” (which means, and it shall be or it shall become) appears in the text it indicates joy. This, of course, raises a question about the use of the word, “V’hah’yah” in this context, which states, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת, and it shall become the Tzaraat affliction on the skin of his flesh. How can joy possibly be associated with the horrible dermatological disease, Tzaraat?

In Numbers 12:12, when Moses prays for his sister to be healed from Tzaraat, he states, אַל נָא תְהִי כַּמֵּת, אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרו, “Let her [Miriam] not be like a corpse, like one who leaves his mother’s womb with half his flesh having been consumed!” Then Moses cries out, אֵ־ל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ, Please G-d, please heal her! (Numbers 12:13). Can one who is afflicted with Tzaraat, in which half his flesh has been consumed, possibly be joyous?

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh,  on Leviticus 13:2 states that the fact that the verse says that it will become a Tzaraat affliction on the “skin of his flesh,” indicates that the Tzaraat symptoms on the person are only skin deep, but not internal. The sin that the person has committed will leave a mark on the flesh, but only on the surface of the skin and not the internal flesh. Since it is only superficial, the victim can be cleansed through the process of Teshuva, repentance.

Thus we see that the dreaded dermatological disease, Tzaraat, creates a stark sense of awareness benefitting the person who is a sinner, who had gossiped, who could not control his G-d-given faculty of speech, and who hurt others by spreading malicious information about them. The disease does indeed have a beneficial purpose.

The famed biblical riddle found in the book of Judges 14:14, attributed to Samson, conveys this same message. When Samson found a beehive in the body of a lion that he had previously killed, he said: וּמֵעַז יָצָא מָתוֹק, from the strong, or bitter source has come honey and sweet. Thus, we see the potentially redeeming quality of being stricken by Tzaraat, if it leads to repentance.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov,  commenting on the powerful renewal and redemptive properties of the Hebrew month Nissan, points out that the ability to redeem and renew is reflected in much of Jewish history.

When Isaac was born, many concluded that the child had been born to become a slave (fulfilling the Divine prophecy of the Covenant Between the Pieces). Instead, Isaac became the progenitor of a great nation of free people. When Abraham took Isaac to be slaughtered on Mount Moriah, all concluded that this was the end of the line for the Jewish people. Instead the Akeida turned out to be a great source of merit that resulted in a powerful future for the Jewish people. The same is true of Jacob, who was certain that he would be cursed for deceiving his father by impersonating his brother Esau. Instead, he emerged with multiple and abundant blessings. Even the bitter enslavement in Egypt led to the Exodus, resulting in the formation of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, and the transformation of twelve disparate tribes into one united nation.

Thus we see that Jewish history in general, which is often perceived as being one unending series of tragedies, persecutions, destructions and exiles, has many silver linings. Many of our peoples’ tragedies have been transformed into joyous holidays and occasions, providing our people with reasons to celebrate their rescue and salvation.

In contemporary society, we see that those in pain often must “hit rock-bottom” before they can acknowledge their dire situation, and pull themselves up for redemption.

Judaism, however, sees even pain itself as redemptive, often serving to warn those who suffer of dangers that need to be addressed. Thus, even Jews who have distanced themselves from tradition, can find their way back when they realize how existentially alone they are without their people.

A prime example of the restorative power of faith is the establishment of the State of Israel, following on the heels of the darkest period of Jewish history. Although it is impossible to suggest that Yom Ha’Atzmaut somehow compensates for the incomprehensible losses of the Shoah, certainly no one would have believed that a mere 70 years after the Holocaust, Jews would have a flourishing homeland of their own and that Torah learning would reach unprecedented levels, hardly ever matched in all of Jewish history.

The message of parashat Tazria, and the Tzaraat plague is a profound message of hope. Through Teshuva, repentance, by returning to G-d, those who suffer can be healed. While the pain and suffering is often very great and appears to be unyielding, G-d’s healing and infinite restorative powers are always to be found.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, April 22nd) is observed this year on the 4th of Iyar, Wednesday evening, April 22nd, and all day Thursday, April 23rd.