One of the things that has bothered me about the Torah is the insensitive treatment of a person who has contracted leprosy. Exiling said person like a piece of garbage, separating them from friends, family, and the community while they struggle with an embarrassing and debilitating disease seems to be the very opposite of the love and sensitivity that Torah is supposed to be all about. But of course, when I actually went to learn about the idea, things started to make much more sense.
A Spiritual Malady
The first thing to understand is that even though the English translations may say leprosy, the disease detailed in the Torah is something completely different.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic but curable infection caused by bacteria. Once a person contracts the bacteria, symptoms can take years or even decades to emerge. But once they do the disease can result in discolored skin, numbness, weakness, and eventually malformation of limbs. Despite the fact that historically lepers were often cast out into quarantine, the disease isn’t particularly contagious.
Meanwhile the condition in the Torah is known as צָרַ֖עַת or tzaraas. Though the two diseases both contain the discoloration of skin, tzaraas differs in that it can result in boils, loss of hair, and can even fester on non living things such as clothing and buildings. But the biggest difference between the afflictions is that tzaraas is a spiritual disease.
Where a doctor is necessary to diagnose and prescribe treatment for leprosy, the Torah explicitly mandates a Kohen (priest) to identify tzaraas and the conditions of the exile the person must go through. Where our modern medical science can treat a physical ailment with a pill, often times that’s a short cut to what is really causing the issue. When it comes to the spiritual ailment of tzaraas, there is no such spiritual quick fix. The person (known as a metzora) must be isolated, not to stop the spread of infection, but so they can reflect on the choices they’ve made that lead to the outbreak.
The Gemara in Arachin (16a) lists seven possible causes for tzaraas.
- Speaking Lashon Hara
- Swearing an oath (involving God’s name) in vain
- Illicit sexual practices
- Acting miserly
According to Rabbi Michael Twerski, there is a common element that runs through these seven transgressions. According to him, these are all ways a person can build themselves up inauthentically and without concern for the humanity of another person. Someone doing any of these behaviors regularly has adopted the mindset that other people are only there for them as means to an end and have completely lost what true connection is all about. So in order to remedy that the person must experience literal loneliness until the affliction subsides.
A Person In Jail Can’t Free Themselves
According to the Zohar, the prayers of a metzora are not listened to. That’s a pretty damming statement to make, suggesting that a person who is affected with this disease, even God won’t listen to. So the Gemara in Shabbos comments that the metzora has to let people know that they are suffering from tzaaras and implore them for their prayers. Why? Does God just really want to embarrass this person?
The first explanation is about the sin of Lashon Hara. I know I listed seven reasons above, but Lashon Hara is number one and is usually regarded as the primary cause. Lashon Hara is defined as speaking ill about any person ESPECIALLY if it is true. The Choffetz Chaim is known for saying that Lashon Hara is so bad it causes damage to the speaker, the listener, and the subject of the gossip. This is because our speech is what separates us from everything else on the planet. In a kabbalistic sense speech is how we most exercise the power of creation that God has shared with us. So when a person uses such a gift so recklessly, God may decide to take it away.
The second explanation has to do with an idea that is repeated throughout the Gemara. A person who is in jail can’t free themselves. How funny is it that there are genius marriage counselors who have been divorced. We may think we have our problems under control, but the fact is many times, we need the objective insight of others to help us. Sometimes the problem is bigger than we are and sometimes we have to admit where we fall short. As I’ve said above, tzaraas comes from doing things that harm your relationships. It would seem fitting that you would need to mend those relationships to solve the problem.
The Condition Today
The Torah talks about tzaraas for this parsha, next week’s parsha, and in several other places. But tzaraas doesn’t exist anymore. No matter how much Lashon Hara you speak or how arrogant you are, your body isn’t going to break out into white splotches. Why not? I’m sure none of us want such a disease because we gossiped, but wouldn’t it be nice to see that cause and effect, to know that God was there, involved in our lives?
We’re all looking for God’s hand in the world. Hashgacha pratis as it is often referred to. If you don’t want to call it God, then you might call it justice or karma. The world once lived at a spiritual level where people got to see such divine interaction everyday and tzaraas was an example of it. But because we’re not at that level we don’t get to see it.
However if you decided to make the choice to live on a higher level, looking for God for the sake of building a relationship, and challenging yourself to grow spiritually, you’ll start to see that hashgacha pratis. In order to do that, it means you have to listen and reflect on the signs He shows you (with the aid of a Rabbi). Because otherwise God could make miracles happen right in front of you and you’d walk right past it, unmoved. You might even end up seeing a person in real need and treat them like, say… a leper… and continue on your way. So it’s probably a good thing we don’t see God’s justice so immediately because we might all find ourselves with some nasty skin conditions.