Posted on March 23, 2011
by Judah Kerbel
April 25, 2009/1 Iyar 5769
This Shabbat, we read a combined parasha, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, of which the main focus is a skin disease called tzara’at. While the disease has often been identified as leprosy, scholars believe that tzara’at is actually a different disease.
If a person sees a scaly affection on his skin, it is to be reported to the priests, the kohanim. In certain cases, he is merely declared impure, in other cases, he is isolated from the community, and the Torah goes on to describe the numerous scenarios which a person affected with leprous may experience. After the affected person purifies himself in the mikveh, he must offer sacrifices, for that person is called mechusar kaparah, one who lacks atonement, until he does so.
Of course, we are puzzled by the significance of this disease, why it requires such intense ritual, what is it about this particular skin disease that inspires such detailed discussion in the Torah. Linguistically, metzora, Hebrew for “leper,” is similar to motzi sheim ra, one who defames, and our Sages defined tzara’at as the punishment for maligning. This idea is furthered by the juxtaposition of Miriam’s contraction of tzara’at with her gossiping about Moshe later in the Torah. Essentially, tzara’at is the outer reflection of an inner flaw: when one sees the tzara’at, he or she is directly reminded of the imperfection that exists in his or her inclination to do what is not so good in the eyes of God. Seifer Ha-Hinnukh, a medieval work explaining the root of each mitzvah in the Torah, notes that in regard to the mitzvah of sacrificing an offering after recovering from tzara’at, the sacrifice, which provides atonement for the leper, bears the symbolism of diminishing the sinful inclination and increasing the value of the soul because tzara’at represents the human pursuit of lust through speech and through action. When one offers the sacrifice after recovery from tzara’at, that person in turn acknowledges that his disease represents an impurity within his soul and that impurity must be rectified by means of a reciprocal spiritual action. Only after that acknowledgment has been made may that person have achieved atonement.
If we look at this issue from a larger scope of the world, we can see that the way our planet may look reflects the way in which we take care of the earth, or the way in which we don’t take care of the earth for that matter. Just like tzara’at is the physical reflection of an inner impurity, global warming and pollution are two examples of “diseases” in the earth that reflect the choice of people to not be careful in preserving the purity of this planet. When polar caps melt and coastlines flood, when our air is too polluted to breathe in good health, when our water is too dirty to drink, that is all a reflection of human beings pursuing grandeur and accomplishment at the price of debasing the quality of the earth that in turns hurts the human race. While the actions taken that caused some of these problems have helped us thrive as a civilization, an excessive amount of industrialization and failure to conserve can backfire on us. Impure desires and intentions in respect to maltreatment of the earth can reflect the physical flaws we begin to see in our planet, just like one may think that maligning will reap self-benefit until that person receives tzara’at.
On a different note, we commemorated Yom Ha-Sho’ah U-g’vurah this past Tuesday. It is on this day we remember the six million Jewish souls that were lost to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and to the desire of human beings to annihilate a whole sect of the world that was created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. We ask why God allowed this stuff to happen – the only way I can answer that question is that God created human beings with free will, with choice, and in that package comes the choice, unfortunately, to do bad. The loss of so many innocent souls to such an abhorrent cause is in and of itself a physical reflection of the evil that might exist in a human soul; mourning the disappearance of a freakishly large number of the Jewish population is the tzara’at of the irresponsible choices that human beings made with their free will. But this day is in fact called Yom Ha-Sho’ah U-g’vurah – g’vurah is heroism. While we may not have had enough heroes during the Holocaust, we do not forget that there were many people who resisted Hitler’s scheme, who actively fought the tzara’at prevalent throughout Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The Righteous Gentiles and all those who participated in the resistance knew and let the world know that they would not tolerate action inspired on account of impure and inhumane desires to fill the world with an unhealthy dogma of hatred and brutality.
So at this point, we are about to count the omer. From the 2nd night of Pesach all the way through Shavuot, we count the days in ascending order in accordance to the law in the Torah. One symbol inherent in counting the omer is the anticipation of receiving the Torah, a major theme of Shavuot. As we count the omer, we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah in the purest state of being possible, in terms of our traits. In light of what we have discussed about tzara’at, I hope that as we prepare ourselves to accept the Torah on Shavuot, that we think about our thoughts and actions and how they reflect on us in the long run, and more importantly, that we think about the world in which we live and how we will fix it to reflect peace, wholeness, and prosperity.