Was Tzaraas (leprosy) a good thing or a bad thing? Was it a punishment or could it have been a reward? For the most part we view Tzaraas as a punishment. Granted, the Talmud states that Tzaraas on a building could have been a good thing. The Talmud relates that the Canaanite population, fearful of the Jewish invasion, hid their wealth in the walls and foundations of their homes. By infecting the walls the building would be demolished and the treasure discovered. However, for the most part, Tzaraas was a form of punishment.
If we consider the amount of attention and detail given by the Torah to this “affliction,” we have to wonder why? Where the Jews of those earlier generations so bad that Tzaraas was a constant in the norms of Jewish life? Assuming that Tzaraas was a punishment for speaking Lashon Harah – slander, it would seem from this week’s Parsha that they were speaking a lot of Lashon Harah! By contrast, the complex laws of how to properly slaughter an animal are contained in a single Pasuk! (Divarim 12:22) Why does the Torah spend so much time on this topic?
(As an aside, although the laws of Shechita are extremely important and contemporary, the Torah specifically does not elaborate in order to emphasize the importance of the Torah Sheb’al Peh the Oral Torah. The brevity of the statement, “As I commanded you,” demands that G-d had given more than just the Written Torah. R.S.R.Hirsch)
Let us first take notice of the placement of these laws in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus). Vayikra and Tzav focused on the basic laws of Korbanos – offerings. It makes sense that the first topic addressed in the book called Torahs Kohanim – the way of the Kohanim (priests), should be the “how to” of Korbanos.
Shimini dealt with the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the priesthood and the dedication of the Mishkan – Tabernacle. That too makes sense. After establishing how to communicate with G-d the Torah moved to put it into affect. The Mishkan was built, the Kohanim were chosen and trained, and the Mizbeach (altar) was burning to get started.
All of a sudden the Torah interjected the laws of Tzaraas. What it was, how it was diagnosed, its various forms and occasions, and the place of the Kohain in diagnosing the disease and prescribing the treatment protocol. With everything in place to properly communicate with G-d, the laws, the Kohanim, and the Mishkan, why did the Torah focus on Tzaraas? And why in such detail?
What should the Torah have presented instead? We are told that the Kohanim were the designated teachers of the nation. They were the preeminent role models of the integration of G-d into daily living. It was a special mitzvah to appoint worthy Kohanim to the august body of the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court). They were both the administrators of the Temple as well as the protectors of G-d’s word. It was into their care that G-d had entrusted the holiest of all objects, the Luchos (Tablets). It would have made perfect sense to go from the inauguration and dedication in Parshas Shimini to the laws of Torah study and chinuch – education.
Maybe the Torah should have turned our attention to the vast body of social laws recorded elsewhere in the Torah. The lessons of Vayikra were never intended to be purely ceremonial and devotional. Their real value was in the lessons to be learned and applied outside of the purified environment of the Mishkan and Temple. They were practical directions in how to integrate G-d into the personal and public arenas of life. Why not point our attention in that direction rather than to the limited application of Tzaraas?
I would like to suggest that the Torah spent the most time and detail on those occasions where G-d’s presence is most manifest. Being that G-d’s presence was most manifest in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple) and Mishkan; therefore, the laws concerning Kohanim, Korbanos, purity and impurity and the workings of the Bais Hamikdash must be presented in great detail. They are by far the most extensive of all sets of laws presented in the Torah. Social laws, such as Tzedaka, marriage, or education are by comparison far less extensive. Please keep in mind that I refer to the presentation of laws as they are recorded in the Torah itself. I am not comparing the extensiveness of any of the laws elaborated upon in the Talmud.
Therefore, the extensive treatment of Tzaraas as presented in Tazria and Metzora must mean that the laws of Tzaraas were a special occasion of G-d’s manifestation.
During the 40 years in the desert, the Bnai Yisroel were subject to an intense revelation of G-d’s constant power and control. They were subject to the immediacy of G-d’s judgment and its attendant reward and punishment. At Kriyas Yam Suf (Splitting of the Sea), the Egyptians were punished and the Jews were saved. In their first encounter with Amalek, the Jews were miraculously victorious while Amalek was defeated. When the various defections and rebellions took place in the desert, G-d’s wrath was swift and direct. At the same time, G-d sustained the Jews with water from rocks, food from heaven, a glorious cloud cover to protect them from the elements, and a pillar of fire to light the way. In many ways, this proved to be the nation’s greatest challenge. Would they be able to live under such intense divine scrutiny? Would they display the strength and courage of being a nation of free willed humans created in the image of G-d? (Meaning, wherever they looked they would see G-d!)
One of the examples of G-d’s intense, manifest presence in the desert was the daily Maana. Every day G-d gave each person and family the exact amount of food needed for that day. On Friday, G-d gave two times that amount because Maana deliveries were suspended on Shabbos. We are told that a person’s own level of sanctity and righteousness determined the proximity of the Maana to his or her home. The more righteous the person the closer the Maana would fall, the less righteous the person the further they would have to go to collect their daily ration of Maana.
Consider the social ramifications of this system. It meant that every day every person was publicly judged. One day it was close and everyone whispered about your righteousness. The next day it was further away and you can imagine the Lashon Harah!
The manifestation of G-d in the giving of Maana was far more invasive than the other public displays of power. Compare it to the cloud cover and the water. Regardless of a persons righteousness, or lack there of, the clouds protected one and all. The same was true for the water. To the best of my knowledge I do not remember the Medresh ever describing hot and cold indoor plumbing for the righteous and outdoor cold showers for the less righteous! However, the proximity of the Maana was personal and private, yet publicly revealed. It was among the clearest expression of G-d’s overt involvement in the private lives of the nation.
Tzaraas was an affliction that was unique to Eretz Yisroel. We are told that if a similar condition would occur outside of Eretz Yisroel it would be referred to a doctor, not the local Kohain. Only in Eretz Yisroel, the holiest country on earth, the country where G-d’s presence is felt “from the beginning of the year to its end,” did the laws of Tzaraas apply.
Tzaraas was intended to bring the individual and the nation back to G-d. It was intended to motivate Teshuva (repentance). According to the Gemara, Tzaraas was a punishment for Lashon Harrah. Slander is an anti-social and destructive act. It insidiously harms its victim as well as all those involved in the sharing of the slander. However, the aim of all punishments is to rehabilitate. It is not to exact vengeance. Therefore, if it was possible for the same aim to be accomplished without the trauma and public shame (think maana) Tzaraas was not necessary.
We know that the Kohanim would not diagnose Tzaraas during the time of Aliya L’regel – Pesach, Shevuoth, and Succos. The diagnosis would wait until after the Yom Tov.
With Pesach a recent reality it behooves us to imagine what we missed out on because Mashiach hasn’t yet arrived. The power of the crowd is well documented. Large multitudes of people gathering for any purpose, good or bad, has a primal influence that moves individuals to do great good or unfortunately great evil. The hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Bnai Yisroel who traveled to Yerushalayim to be Oleh Regel (going to the Temple on the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuoth, and Succos.) cannot be described. The power of the moment cannot be calculated. It was the greatest public display of devotion to G-d and His Torah imaginable. It was the greatest Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name)).
What affect did such a scene have on a sinner waiting to be declared a Metzora (leper)? Most of us can recall the power of the most recent world wide Siyum Hashas (world wide completion of the study of the Talmud taking seven years) or Birkas Kohanim (blessing of the priests). Multitudes of Jews gathering for the glory of G-d and His Torah are occasions that propel us to greater heights of commitment and devotion. They challenge our assumed understanding of power and purpose and redirect, if only for the moment, our minds and hearts. That was the experience of Aliya L’regel that enveloped and embraced the potential Metzora.
The Kohanim would not diagnose Tzaraas during the Yomim Tovim because they hoped that the experience of the holiday would motivate the sinner, especially the slanderer, to repent and avoid being declared a Metzora.
Tzaraas was a public display of G-d’s presence. When the Jews merited such an overt display of G-d’s displeasure, Tzaraas applied. When the Jews became distant from G-d and were exiled from their land, Tzaraas ended. Therefore, in this way Tzaraas was more positive than negative. G-d’s presence is manifest in how He rewards and equally manifest in how He punishes. The key is to recognize G-d’s power in all its manifestations.
The daily events here and in Israel should be constant reminders that this truly is G-d’s world. He suffers our presence and rewards or punishes accordingly. We just borrow time for the chance at glimpsing the Creator.
As funny as it sounds, may we once again be worthy of G-d’s manifest presence, even if it means Tzaraas.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.