Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Word of Torah – Metzora

For two weeks, the Torah deals with the laws of TZA’RA’AT, usually translated as leprosy. The Cohen, the priest, was charged with identifying those with the ailment, and determining the course of action to be taken to achieve a cure. Until then, the afflicted was sent out of the community until pronounced clean by the priest. Only then does he go through ritual cleansing to re-enter the camp of Israel. The details of these procedures are difficult to understand. So, Rabbi Schulweis approached me last week to ask what would be the topic of my Torah “drash”. But, I punted, avoiding the leper altogether. Instead I chose to speak about the upcoming new month of Nisan, the month of the Passover holiday.

Years before, as a student, Rabbi Schulweis didn’t have this luxury. He had been assigned this portion for his senior sermon at the Seminary in New York. He was very brave and told the Rabbis, that this portion is un-interpretable. He was right. Trying to decipher the meaning of these procedures from the literal text seems to be impossible.

Later Maimonides pointed out in his Mishneh Torah, Tahara, Hilchot Tzara’at 16:120, that tzara’at refers to skin diseases, to mold on one’s house or one’s clothing. In- other-words, a collection of various afflictions, not leprosy. To better understand this “tzara’at” let’s look at the Biblical verse in which Miriam was smitten by tza’ra’at (Num. 12: 10). Here we see the affliction is a direct result of a particular behavior, for she spoke badly about her brother Moses. The Torah later warns, “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 24: 8-9).

Speaking badly about another, slander, is known in Hebrew as “motzi shem ra”, and sounds very much like tza’ra’at, thus the change from disease to moral failing.

Rambam gives a brilliant account of why tza’ra’at afflicted both inanimate objects like walls and clothes, and human beings:

It was a sign… For if a man uttered slander, the walls of his house would suffer. But if he continued in his wickedness until the house was torn down, leather objects in his house on would suffer. But if he continued in his wickedness the garments that he wore would suffer. And, finally, if he continued in his wickedness his skin would become infected by tza’ra’at and he was set apart and alone until he no more engaged in wicked conversation.

Hence the poetic justice Jewish tradition attributes to one of the least poetic of biblical passages. The slanderer spreads his lies in private, but his evil is exposed in public. First the walls of his house, then his leather objects, then his clothes, and eventually his skin itself. He is then condemned to the humiliation of isolation:

'Unclean! Unclean!' he denounces himself to the world. Since he is unclean, he must remain alone, and his place shall be outside the camp (Lev. 13: 45-46). Said the rabbis: Because his words separated husband from wife and brother from brother, his punishment is that he is separated from human contact and made an outcast from society (Arakhin 16b).

And so we learn, be careful in what you say as you may be ashamed to have it exposed in public. That should be the basic understanding of the law of tza’ra’at today.