Posted on March 23, 2011
by Sylvie Grossbard with Avra Heller
Falling right in the middle of Torat HaKohanim (the book of Vayikra), Tazria and its partner, Metzora, deal with the responsibilities of the kohanim pertaining to impurity in people due to disease and bodily emission. Tazria begins with a description of a woman’s offering after giving birth, and later delves into the biblical diseases, the most famous of which is tzara’at (Metzora continues this theme).
We are all familiar with the Torah’s frequent descriptions of tzara’at, a disease many people now know as leprosy, which is not an accurate translation, as we cannot really identify what the disease is. It is characterized by swelling, scabs, whiteness, or bright spots, which are all symptoms of diseases that have been recognized and diagnosed in the twentieth century. Additionally, the treatment is quarantine until a kohen deems the infected person pure again. Yet tzara’at cannot possibly be a “normal” infection, because its contamination may spread to clothing, linens, and even one’s house.
Many commentators, both ancient and modern, have tried to find explanations for this phenomenon. However, in the words of Abravanel (translated), “Far be it from us to consider the Torah as a medical manual.” Thus, it is not our job to try and identify the symptoms of the disease as scientific evidence. Instead, the Torah has chosen to associate tzara’at with lashon hara, for which it is a known punishment. According to Rambam, “tzara’at comes as a punishment for the evil tongue, for its owner is isolated and can no longer harm people with his loose talk.” The affliction of tzara’at is not natural; rather, it is God’s way of informing people of their transgressions, and prompting them to do teshuvah and return to God, because of its supernatural aspects.
In our own time, we find cause for disease in miniscule organisms that scientists identify under microscopes or through other tests, and we treat these diseases with advanced medicines. We no longer look at disease as a punishment from God for our sins. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the lesson we learn from the concept of tzara’at. Although we may not find patches of infected skin on our bodies, we can find evidence of our wrongdoings in people’s reactions to our behavior and its repercussions. The message of this affliction is therefore to be aware of your actions and to understand their effects. That way, we will always know what we have done, and will always know how we can change it for the better.