The laws of impurity and purity, tuma and tahara, are of the most complex and intricate in Judaism. Not only are these laws detailed and complicated in terms of their observance, they are also seemingly completely irrelevant to our daily lives. This week we learn about the affliction tzara’at. Far too often tzara’at is mistakenly defined as leprosy. While tzara’at may look like leprosy, it certainly is and is caused by very different things. (The JPS translates tzara’at as a “scaly infection”. This is more accurate, yet the word “infection” implies that the condition is medical, which we shall soon see is not the case.)
The truth about tzara’at is that nobody really knows what it is. There is no medical treatment to get rid of it. Our Rabbis (Chazal) explain that tzara’at is a spiritual affliction, not a medical one. To prove this notion, the Rambam quotes from our Parsha:
If the eruption spreads out over the skin so that it covers all of the skin of the affected person from head to foot, wherever the priest can see – if the priest sees that the eruption has covered the whole body – he shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean, for he has turned all white. (13:12-13)
If someone is covered from head to toe – he has no visible skin without tzara’at present, then he is completely pure. Someone can be completely covered in the rash, yet he is considered completely pure/healthy. If this were a medical condition, this would be the most severe case of the affliction, not a benign one! The Rambam therefore concludes that tzara’at is not a medical condition, and it is purely based on spirituality.
The official word name for someone with tzara’at is a “metzora”. The Kli Yakar explains that this word is really a compound word for motzi-ra, or one who brings out [internal] evil.
The Talmud (Arachin 16a) lists seven things that cause tzara’at: slandering, murder, vain oaths, illicit relations, theft, and for stinginess. We see the example of “slandering” with Miriam, Moses’ sister, who is afflicted with tzara’at for speaking about Moses behind his back. In fact, we are commanded to remember this punishment every day (See Shesh Zechirot in the back of the Siddur and see Deuteronomy 24).
It would be wrong of us to view tzara’at as an obsolete condition that does not apply to us today. The Sefer Yetzirah, a famous Kabalistic work, claims, “There is no evil below tzara’at.“ (2:7. Quoted by Sefer Netivot Shalom). We must therefore understand the main lesson of tzara’at, in order to combat the evil it represents.
There is one specific word used by the Torah to modify tzara’at that appears only very few times elsewhere in Tanach. The word negah, affliction, only appears once in the entire Book of Genesis, once in the entire book of Exodus, and is mentioned 47 times in Chapter 13 of Leviticus, and 14 more times in Chapter 14.
In Exodus, this term negah is used to describe the last of the ten plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians. In Exodus 11:1 God says: “I will bring but one more negah upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; and after that he shall let you go from here…”
The real lesson about tzara’at is that it is so mysterious. In Exodus, God is punishing Egypt in a way so magnificent and miraculous that in the aftermath not a single person will be able to deny God, and Pharaoh will inevitably let the people go.
This is what tzara’at is supposed to do! If someone sins in of those 6 fundamental areas, he clearly was not thinking about God at the time of his sin. Therefore his punishment is something so mysterious and unexplainable that he will inevitably realize that God is responsible for it. He will hopefully learn to start thinking about God next time he has a desire to sin.
Although we cannot relate to tzara’at on a familiar level, we should be able to relate to its message. There is more to this world than we can always explain, and the moment that one becomes haughty and forgets that, thinking he knows everything, he becomes a metzora and manifests what might be the worst evil in the world. We must learn to be humble in our knowledge, and we must be moral people – lest we fall into the trap of tzara’at in our times as well.