A Message in White1
We are struck by the Torah’s treatment of nega’m, the discolorations of people, garments and dwellings that our parshah deals with at great length. We are baffled by the complexity of its details. We begin our attempt to decipher its message with the easiest step: understanding that we are not looking at the Torah’s prescription for a natural occurrence.
Many outside of our circles took the simple and completely unsubstantiated route of seeing – especially in regard to tzara’as on human skin – an ancient approach to a medical issue. Numerous clues in our parsha belie this possibility. Not the least of which is the role of the kohain, without whose pronouncement the afflicted person continues business as usual. If this section was the reaction of the ancients to a dread and uncomprehended disease, the metzora ought to have been confined or banished from the community immediately. His cure can come later; the first order of business should be to minimize the risks to others.
Tzara’as, however, is not leprosy. The classic progress of the true medical affliction, turning the skin white from head to toe, is not called tzora’as but shechin Mitzrayim, and is halachically excluded from the treatment in our parshah.
What, then, are we to make of it? The Torah later cautions that we take heed about the plague of tzora’as, and not forget what Hashem did to Miriam. We could ask for no better assistance in breaking the code of our parshah.
Miriam had spoken lashon hora about Moshe. Implicitly, she had also over-rated herself relative to Moshe. For these sins – decidedly social sins- she is banished from the community, and must wait outside its limits for seven days. When Moshe entreats Hashem on her behalf, He responds that if a human father had displayed strong disapproval of his daughter (disapproval that bordered on contempt) in a dramatic manner, would she not be shamed into retreating from his presence for a week?
The message is clear. Tzora’as is a dramatic message of disapproval sent by our Divine Father in response to social sins, and meant to induce shame in the transgressor, who must then in solitude consider his unworthiness to remain in the company of the community. He deserves to be banished from the special community of men in which Hashem’s Presence takes its place in the mishkan which is its fulcrum of activity and ideological focal point.
Chazal take full note of this. They tell us that tzora’as is a Divine reaction to lashon hora. Disparaging, belittling, and unflattering speech drives wedges between people, and unravels the cohesion of a community. He who causes separation between man and wife, between friend and friend, must be separated from the community. As part of his atonement, he offers two birds, animals the tweet and chatter as he did. Furthermore, Chazal see in nega’im in general a connection to a host of social sins, including spilling of blood, perjury, pride, and selfishness that keeps a person indifferent to the needs of others. A slightly different formulation speaks not of the sin, but of the parts of the body that commit the sin: a lying tongue, proud eyes, heart pondering violence, etc. Chazal are saying that all of Man’s organs and limbs are meant to do good, help others, seek good and justice. By perverting their purpose, they deserve to be stricken.
The details begin to fall into place. Tzora’as strikes a person’s skin, the body’s chief interface with the external environment. Skin connects him with the world outside himself, senses the impact of what is apart from him, and bears its immediate impact in place of the internal organs. When he does not properly feel the most important parts of the external world, i.e. the needs of his fellow citizens, he is made to feel the touch of Hashem upon him.
Some part of his skin turns white. This may indicate that he has “died,” in a manner of speaking. He has become numb, in part, to his closeness to G-d, which is what ordinarily animates and sensitizes him. Alternatively, the white color may indicate the ashen complexion of deep, penetrating shame. The one to “out” him, to make his deficiency public, is the kohain, acting as the surrogate for the mishkan he represents, and its message of all that is proper and holy that we are expected to do when we ask Hashem to dwell amongst us. (The nega is clearly meant to be a message shared by others. To be considered tzora’as, it must lodge on an area of the skin that is plain and visible, but not in a fold of skin, apparent only to the afflicted.) The kohain does nothing less than pronounce him, in the name of the mikdosh, unworthy to live within the company of men. The Torah treats the metzora severely. No other person who is tamei is fully ejected from the borders of the community.
The progress of the plague is often complicated. A nega may be tentative, sending him into isolation for a test period. Sometimes, it is definitively declared by the kohain. In both cases, he spends his time in isolation, mulling over what has gone wrong in his relations to others. The point of the “test” weeks may very well be to see if he responds to the message by mending his ways. (This may also explain the curious halacha that a kohain does not pronounce a nega tamei during a holiday or the week of wedding celebration. Coupled with his receiving a warning sign in the undiagnosed patch of discoloration on his body, the frequent and positive social interactions available at such times may be enough to stir him to repent.)
Three symptoms force a declaration of certain, definitive tumah: a spreading of the discoloration, a hair in its midst that turns white, and the appearance of fresh, unblemished skin in the midst of the nega. The first is intuitive; the other two require some explanation.
Hair, in a sense, performs the opposite function of skin. If skin is meant to sense and respond, hair is made to protect against sensation. It shields the body from casual stimulation of the skin underneath. A white discoloration symbolizes the death of the person’s capacity to respond positively to others. A hair turning white signifies further deterioration. Even his defenses against negative influences upon him have withered and suffered.
The emergence of healthy flesh may indicate that all his efforts at improvement have proved insufficient. He has generated pure, healthy flesh – but it has not been enough to overcome the dead flesh. His good remains imprisoned within his deficiency.
Curiously, if the discoloration erupts over the entire body of the metzora, he finds temporary respite from his tumah. Yet, if the same were to occur without any prior discoloration at all, he becomes a definitive metzora! The point may be that a person cannot be expected to heal himself unless the memory of his old, undamaged self is fresh in his mind. His association with the community and with the mikdosh in its midst must still be a working influence upon him. If a message of all-enveloping tumah and failure is delivered to him within a state of prior tumah, he is powerless to make the internal changes that he needs. He must wait for a partial remission of his symptoms, at which point he is returned to his isolation!
The nega of a small child would seem to undermine this entire approach. Any Divine message about faulty behavior should only be given to someone morally responsible for his actions. Minors would seem to be excluded. The nega, however, may be intended for the parents, not the child. While entrusted to their care, the child completely depends upon them. This message may be the most effective of all. It tells the parents that if they cannot motivate themselves to change for their own sakes, they should have compassion on their child, and realize how their shortcomings will damage his future development.
We now stand in awe before the beauty of this parshah. No human court will or can address these flaws in character and in relating to others. Only G-d can do that. When the Jewish people live on their land and in the presence of His mikdosh, His love for even the sinner moves Him to reach out and touch him – and to describe in advance how that message will come.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Tazria, end
2. In fact, the medical condition, Hansen’s disease, is not virulently infectious. It is contagious for a relatively short period of time, and about 95% of people are immune to it.)
3. Devarim 24:8
4. Arachin 16A
5. Vayikra Rabbah, Metzora