Reading through chapter 13, it’s hard not to think about how long it is. And, frankly, boring. And yucky, and most mysteriously, utterly needless. Who needs all this information about skin, clothing and house ailments? It’s tempting to suggest that this is an early beta version of WebMD, democratizing medical knowledge, allowing your average Joe Jew to be empowered with information about his condition. But the empowerment is severely limited by the Torah’s insistence that the status of a ‘metzora’ is not so much diagnosed by the Kohen as it is created by his decision. Tzara’at is not something that can be self-diagnosed; it doesn’t exist halachically until it is so declared by a licensed professional (more on this tomorrow).
The Rambam didn’t write 59 verses about tzara’at. He recorded its laws over a span of sixteen (!) chapters. For the very courageous few who make it to the end (or those like me who skip to it), in the very last halacha, Rambam the physician explains that the hundreds of detailed laws of tzara’at, which at most, theoretically, have relevance only to priests, have nothing to do with physical, medical occurrences. Even the arch-pashtan Rashbam, who almost always prefers to lay aside rabbinic Midrash in order to explicate the simple meaning of the text, admits that here, there is no such thing as ‘pshat’. There is no credible, logical explanation other than what is offered by the rabbis (See his commentary to 13:2).
That explanation is at once well-founded and deafeningly absent in the text. A metzora, explains Resh Lakish, is a fellow with a social disease, a physical reflection of the moral repugnance of the “motzi shem ra“. Humankind’s first task was to look at God’s good world and to name it. The ‘motzi shem ra’ does precisely the opposite, looking with narrow, jealous eyes at the world. And so gossip, idle chatter, recreational character assassination, a daily or hourly activity for many, the topic of countless posts, emails, and amusing messages of various forms, are treated by the Torah to an exorbitant level of attention, verses upon verses, laws upon laws, forcing us to spend time and pay attention to the plagues and destruction this behavior brings, and the ways to repair it.
“The [tzara’at-]afflicted house never was and never will be. Why was it written? Study it, and you will be rewarded.” (Sanhedrin 71a)
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
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