The brunt of the Parshiot of Tazria and Metzora pertains to the laws of tzara’at, a condition that is sometimes identified as leprosy. Not only are the symptoms of tzara’at similar to those of leprosy, the fact that a metzora[1] is put into quarantine suggests that tzara’at, like leprosy, is highly contagious. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch goes to great lengths to show that this identification is incorrect and he brings multiple proofs to support his conclusion. For instance, the Torah rules that if tzara’at covers one’s entire body this person is not considered “infected”, but if his skin begins to heal he becomes a metzora and he is sent into quarantine. This is counterintuitive: If the reason a person is sent into quarantine is to prevent the disease from spreading, then a person who has symptoms of tzara’at completely covering his entire body should most certainly be put into quarantine.

So what, then, is tzara’at? Our Sages teach that it is a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. That is to say, tzara’at is caused by sin. Rav Hirsch points out that as tzara’at is treated by a Kohen and not by a doctor, it should not be interpreted as a medical problem, but, rather, as an exclusively spiritual ailment. While the most well-known cause of tzara’at is slander (lashon hara), the Talmud in Tractate Arachin [16a] lists another six causes, including murder, hubris, and forbidden sexual relationships.

The laws of tzara’at are divided into three categories: tzara’at of the body (Corporeal Tzara’at), tzara’at of an article of clothing, and tzara’at of a building. The Torah concludes its discussion of Corporeal Tzara’at with tzara’at found on a bald spot [Vayikra 13:40-44]: “If a man loses the hair on [the back of] his head, he is bald but he is pure… If there is a reddish white lesion on the back or front bald area, it is a spreading tzara’at in his back or front bald area… He is a man afflicted with tzara’at; he is impure. The Kohen shall pronounce him impure; his lesion is on his head.” After determining that this person has indeed contracted “Bald-Spot Tzara’at”, the Torah then presents a list of restrictions that he must abide by [Vayikra 13:45-46]: “The metzora, in whom there is the lesion, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be unshorn, he shall cover himself down to his moustache and he shall call out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days the lesion is upon him he shall remain impure. He is impure; he shall remain isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Rashi, quoting from the Torat Kohanim, a Halachic Midrash on the Book of Vayikra, teaches that these restrictions[2] are not specific to “Bald-Spot Tzara’at”, but, rather, are applicable for all types of Corporeal Tzara’at. If this is so, then the location of these verses seems strange. A more logical location would be immediately preceding or following its discussion of the first type of Corporeal Tzara’at [Vayikra 13:1-3]. Why should the Torah connect the “General Laws of the Metzora” with one particular variant of tzara’at?

One might suggest that the location of the “General Laws of the Metzora” makes perfect sense. The Torah first describes all of the variants of Corporeal Tzara’at, and only then does it present the general laws for a person who suffers from any type of Corporeal Tzara’at. The problem with this suggestion is that it does not mesh with the way the in which the Torah is written. While there is no punctuation in a Torah Scroll, the words are broken into paragraphs, where a new paragraph can either begin a new line or it can follow a white space on the same line. And while there are no clear rules as to when a new paragraph begins, it is generally agreed that a new paragraph introduces a new idea. The problem with the answer suggested above is that the “General Laws of the Metzora” are located in the same paragraph as the laws of “Bald-Spot Tzara’at”. If the “General Laws of the Metzora” are indeed “general”, shouldn’t they deserve their own paragraph?[3]

A comment by Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, writing in the “Kli Yakar”, can give us a way ahead. Rav Luntschitz is bothered by the term “The metzora, in whom there is the lesion: his garments shall be torn…” in the verse that begins the “General Laws of the Metzora”. Of course the metzora has a lesion! If he didn’t have a lesion, he wouldn’t be a metzora, would he? Why doesn’t the Torah simply say “The metzora’s garments shall be torn…” Rav Luntschitz learns from this that the “lesion” (nega) is not referring to the skin lesion, but, rather, to the spiritual lesion or defect that caused the tzara’at. As long as the metzora remains mired in his ways he will remain a metzora.

Rav Luntschitz’s explanation seems fair enough, but why is this lesson taught specifically via “Bald-Spot Tzara’at”? To answer this question we must understand that an object is considered “infected” with tzara’at only after positive identification by a Kohen. Until the Kohen compares the lesion with pictures in his “Tzara’at Handbook”, the person / clothing / house is considered spiritually pure. The Torah tells us that before the Kohen enters a house suspected of infection he must first [Vayikra 14:36] “order the house cleared before [he] enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become unclean”. If you don’t want to lose your new Bang and Olufsen stereo, you still have time to take it out of the house before the Kohen arrives. As far as tzara’at is concerned, if the Kohen didn’t see it, it isn’t there. This makes “Bald-Spot Tzara’at” particularly troublesome, because if the person did not have a bald spot, then it would have been impossible for the Kohen to see the tzara’at. Why should someone be discriminated against just because he has no hair?

This is where Rav Luntschitz comes in. Most sins are binary: you either sinned or you didn’t. Slander is different. Slander is exquisitely difficult to define and so it is exquisitely easy to justify. I didn’t slander Fred by calling him a cheater. Everybody already knows that he has questionable ethics and people that might do business with him should be aware of this. That’s not slander, it’s a public service. A study performed in 1986 asked people to rate their driving skills: average, worse than average, or better than average. Only a small minority rated themselves as below the median, and almost eighty percent of the participants had evaluated themselves as being an above-average driver. This is clearly impossible: only fifty percent of a population can be above-average at anything. Psychologists call this “Illusory superiority”. We like to consider ourselves good people: I have above-average intelligence, I am intellectually honest, and I would never knowingly sin. And that’s not tzara’at – that’s some kind of skin condition I inherited. “Bald-Spot Tzara’at” is only discriminatory against bald people if tzara’at is considered a punishment. But this is only part of the story. Tzara’at is more than just a punishment: it is an indicator. It is Hashem’s way of telling you that your “public service announcement” is nothing more than defamation, and unless you change your ways, you are destined for a life – and an afterlife – of pain. If you did not have that bald spot, you would never have known that you were infected, and you would continue living in oblivion.

But there’s more. “Bald-Spot Tzara’at” is the worst kind of tzara’at, in that it is indicative of the worst kind of spiritual malaise. The source of thought is the brain. “Bald-Spot Tzara’at” is as close to the brain as it can get, as if to indicate that the spiritual rot has already metastasized and has penetrated the source. For this reason the Torah stresses “[He is] impure; [See that] his lesion is on his head!” The “General Laws of the Metzora” are specifically appended to this variant of tzara’at to teach a message: Yea verily you have tzara’at and it’s tzara’at of the worst kind. The Torah forces this person to perform actions that force him to internalize this message before it is too late.

Tzara’at is a wake-up call. We can choose to hear the call and to make the necessary changes in our lives. Or we can live in denial: We can attribute our misfortune to bad genes or to discrimination or to just dumb luck. The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzippora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] A “metzora” is a person who has been positively diagnosed with tzara’at.

[2] Tearing of the garments, not shaving, and quarantine.

[3] Indeed, in the ArtScroll “Stone” Chumash, these laws are written in a separate paragraph.