Tzara’at – A Positive Malady

By: Rabbi Dovid Markel

 

The Torah portions of Tazria and Metzorah are more often than not, connected and read together on the same Shabbos.

Parshas Tazria discusses the continuation of the laws of ritual purity and impurity. The parsha begins with the laws of impurity that affect a woman who has given birth, and then goes on to explain the laws of “Tzara’at.”

Though Tzara’at is usually translated as leprosy, it was, in fact, a supernatural malady that manifested itself in a physical form, as a rather benign skin ailment of white or pinkish rashes on the skin. The kohein would come to look at the skin ailment to see if it in fact was Tzara’at, and after a judging the various conditions during a quarantine stage would declare the person either “tahor” – pure, or “tamei” – impure. If the person was found to be tamei, he would be required to leave the city and live by himself on its outskirts until he was healed.

Parshas Metzora begins with a detailed instruction of how the “metzorah” – the individual stricken with the Tzara’at – became pure when the appropriate time came. The purification process involved the presence of a kohein, as well as specific birds, spring water, an earthen vessel, cedar wood, and certain grasses. After enumerating these details, the Torah portion then goes on to explain another variation of Tzara’at and other laws of impurity.

In the second portion of the book of Tanya titled Sha-ar Hayichud V’haemuna, it is explained that in the “Holy Tongue” names are not merely happenstance, but are expressive of the entire Divine energy of that specific thing.

Interestingly, the first Torah portion, which deals with the impurities of the metzorah, is called Tazria – a word which expresses birth and life, while the Torah portion that deals with the purification of the Tzara’at malady is called Metzorah.

Furthermore, commentators explain that a metzorah is not only a spiritually impure individual, but on some level is considered to be dead.[1] This seems to be counterintuitive. Why would a parsha that expresses death begin and be named after the pronouncement of life (Tazria)?!

The same question can be asked concerning the second parsha, Metzorah. The parsha enumerates the purification process for a person with Tzara’at, and yet is called by the name of the ailing individual—Metzorah. What is the reason for this, and what possible lesson can be learned from these idiosyncrasies?

Maimonides writes the following at the end of his discussion of the laws of Tzara’at:[2] “…instead it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against “lashon hora” – undesirable speech. When a person speaks lashon hora… his skin undergoes changes and he develops Tzara’at. This causes him to be isolated and for it to be made known that he must remain alone so that he will not be involved in the talk of the wicked, which is folly and lashon hora…”

Tzara’at is not merely a punishment for a person’s wicked ways, but it is primarily meant to teach the person to change his actions and to lead a new life. The purpose of Tzara’at was to cause a person to realize that there is an effect to his words and to refocus his life for the positive. It is for this reason that the person afflicted with Tzara’at had to disassociate himself from the rest of humanity, and reside alone for a certain period of time. This would enable him to reflect on his life and past actions, and recalibrate them toward a new beginning.

This is why the name of the parsha that deals with the impurity of Tzara’at is named Tazria, which conjures up the imagery of birth and the beginning of new life. It is to teach the person that far from Tzara’at being an affliction of negativity, it was a gift from G-d to help the person to become a better, rejuvenated individual.

In this same vein, the name of the parsha that deals with the purification of Tzara’at is named after the disease. This comes to teach us that in truth, the Tzara’at was not a disease at all, but a positive purification process. The Tzara’at that a person became afflicted with was merely a means to bring the individual to the true intent of the malady—to become spiritually cleaned. As the verse in the Torah states, “the law of the person afflicted with Tzara’at, on the day of his purification.[3]

The lesson of the positive and constructive purpose that Tzara’at fulfills, rather than serving as one of destructiveness, is something that a person must incorporate into all actions of their life. Often times, we are inflicted with maladies—physical or spiritual. Just as a person knows that the true depth of Tzara’at—a malady that is likened to death itself—was really a positive occurrence that the person needed to learn from, so too he should recognize that all physical and spiritual maladies he may have must be used as an impetus for growth and reflection.

The exile that the Jewish people find themselves in can be likened to a person with Tzara’at. At this time we are separated from revealed G-dliness as the metzorah is separated from the general community. Just as the metzorah’s main objective is that of Tazria-rebirth, so too, must we in exile understand that the actual intent of the exile is the redemption. When a person has this mentality during the period of exile, he is able to infuse a redemptive mindset into his whole life.

May we merit to not only experience the hidden good of Parshas Tazria, but experience as well the ultimate “day of purification,” with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our times!

 

(Based on Likutei Sichos 22, P. 70ff)


[1] Nedarim 64b

[2] 16:10

[3] Vayikra 13:2

 

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