The verses in this week’s Torah portion discuss the purification process of a person who has been afflicted with tzara’ath (leprosy). “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: If a man has a se’eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzara’ath … he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim. The kohen shall look (v’ra’ah) at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath. The kohen shall look at it (v’ra’ahu), and he shall pronounce him impure.” (Vayikra 13:1-2) With just a cursory reading of the above mentioned verses, two main questions arise: firstly, what is the nature of this tzara’ath affliction? Is the Torah simply relating how to diagnose the medical disease known as leprosy, or is tzara’ath a condition of a more spiritual nature? Secondly, why is it specifically the Kohen — who normally distances himself from impurity as it disqualifies him from performing the temple service — who is the one to diagnose tzara’ath,declare the affected person pure or impure and facilitate their rehabilitation process?
Many Biblical commentators offer lengthy and varying explanations as to the exact nature of tzara’at, however, all are in agreement that it was more than just a physical malady. The Ramban explains that because the verses describe that in addition to a person’s body both his garments and home could become affected with tzara’ath, it is clear that it was not simply a random medical occurrence. Writes the Ramban, “Rather, when the people of Israel are whole in their relationship with God, then God’s spirit is upon them constantly to preserve their bodies, garments and houses in good repair. When sin or transgression happens with one of them, then a blemish occurs on their flesh, their clothing or their domicile to indicate that God has withdrawn from them.” (VaYikra 13:47) Similarly, Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno , an Italian biblical commentator and physician writes, “…the medically catastrophic tzara’ath, which we know to be system wide cancers, generally tend to be red or black and are not considered ‘impure’ by the Torah. Only the four [whitish] discolorations that the Torah lists are seen as representing a form of reproof for sinning.” (Vayikra13:2). From these explanations, it becomes clear that tzara’ath was a physical manifestation of deeper spiritual malaises. The cause of this tzara’ath is described in Tractate Arachin, where it lists a number of possibilities, ranging from gossip and slander to robbery and murder. The underlying theme to all of the transgressions mentioned is a clear lack of care for a fellow person, be it for their emotional or physical well-being.
In taking a closer look at the diction of the second verse cited above, we will be able to understand why it was specifically tasked to the Kohen to diagnose this spiritual ailment, and why it fell to him to declare the person suffering from it either pure or impure. The beginning of the verses explain that the Kohen “shall look (v’ra’ah)” at the lesion; the end of the verse writes that the Kohen “shall look at it (v’ra’ahu).” This seeming redundancy led Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk to explain as follows: “The Kohen shall look (v’ra’ah) at the lesion –to see whether or not it is of the category which makes a person impure. When the verse writes -The Kohen shall look (v’ra’ahu), it is no longer discussing the lesion but rather the person themselves, if it is fitting to declare them impure….how does the overall person stand qualitatively speaking….”(Meshech Chachma Vayikra 13:3) It is not enough to just have an understanding of whether or not the lesion presenting itself is technically “pure “or “impure,” rather the entirety of the person exhibiting the lesion must be weighed and measured.
This capability to judge the entirety of a person, and possessing the ability to facilitate their return to a more lofty spiritual state is not a simple matter—it is a unique gift given to the Kohen. What is it about the essence of the Kohanic nature that enables them to carry out this task? One need look no further than the blessing that is recited preceding the Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing), whereby the Kohanim stand in front of the congregation to bless the people. They recite, “…who sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and commanded us to bless the nation of Israel with love.” The Kohen is the only member of the Jewish nation who is commanded to bless the people out of a sense of boundless love.
In his work Torat Eretz Yisrael, author Rabbi David Samson quotes Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook on the true definition of love. “When we use the expression “ahavah (love)” one must understand it in its true, not spurious from. In contrast to the state called “platonic love,” which is a love which has no real attachment, true ahavah is a relationship of sympathy, affection, and friendship. True ahavah necessitates a great interest in the welfare of the loved one, a genuine interest and concern that the person feels good, that the beloved be healthy in spirit, and in body, and that he reach ethical and spiritual sanctification…” (Torat Eretz Yisrael pg 86) Embedded within the DNA of every Kohen is the affinity to love and actively care about the people of Israel.
However, the commandment to love and care for a person and their spiritual wellbeing does not connote that one must love foolhardily and ignore the flaws that exist; rather, it is quite the opposite. While relating the principle of loving your neighbour as yourself, the verses in Parshat Kedoshim write, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall certainly rebuke your comrade, and you shall not bear sin on his account. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen, and you shall love your fellow as yourself. I am God.” (Vayikra 19:17-18). In his work the Keli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Luntschitz further explains these verses as follows: “The Torah places the command of rebuke within the verse “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” for when love is found amongst fellow Jews, and people are honestly concerned with the needs and wellbeing of their neighbours, they will rebuke their fellows so as not to allow them to fall into sin. However, at a time when Jews hate each other, one will not rebuke the other; instead, one will do the opposite: flattering the other, saying “You did right,” “You have done nothing wrong”, while one’s true sinister intent is to allow the other to ultimately fail to live up to his potential. Doing so is an expression of hatred, of one who desires the downfall of his fellow Jew…”(Keli Yakar Vayikra 19:18)Truly loving a person and caring deeply about their spiritual and physical wellbeing entails that one must point out their shortcomings. This delicate task must be undertaken in the appropriate manner, by taking the entirety of the person into account, so that they will be able to regain their unique spiritual potential and to draw them closer to the Divine. That is why the Kohen –whose very essence is love for the entire People of Israel – is charged with declaring the tzara’ath “pure “or “impure.”
The Torah says of the Jewish people “…and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) May we merit the strength to tap into the inherent aspect of priesthood within, and look upon every member of the Jewish people through the lens of love.