Mordechai Silverstein

God’s Plea for Self-Awareness

At first glance, much of Parshat Tazria reads like a public health directive for both how to diagnose and treat a variety of skin ailments and clothing blemishes. For the rabbinic sages, this focus seemed religiously inadequate for they could not imagine that this was the Torah’s purpose. As a result, while the sages did deal in depth with the identification and treatment of these ailments, they also declared their cause to be moral and religious failings rather than biological disease.

In a number of places in rabbinic literature, the sages cite moral and religious transgressions which might lead to “tzaraat” often misidentified in the English language as leprosy. While the list of sins varies from one source to another, all are sins which would likely affect both a person’s inner life and their interaction with the world around him or her. Here is one of the more comprehensive lists:

For ten matters tzaraat comes: For idol worship, for forbidden sexual relations, for bloodshed, for desecration of the Name, for blaspheming of the Name, for one who robs the public, for one who steals what is not his, for the haughty, for slander, and for miserliness. (Vayikra Rabbah 17:3, Margulies ed. p. 374-377)

In the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah which follows this particular list, the sages endeavored to seek out a theological purpose for these moral and religious maladies and the elaborate ritual processes the Torah legislated to cure them. I will bring here, however, a more straightforward presentation of this midrash’s message from a later midrashic collection:

When a man has on the skin of his flesh. (Leviticus 13:2) – It is difficult for the Holy One, blessed be He, to reach out His hand against (punish) this man. Rather He forewarns a person [and afflicts his house] first and then He strikes him, as stated: “And when I put a plague of tzaraat in a house of the land you possess.” (Leviticus 14:34) First, He strikes his house. [If] he repents, fine; but if not, He strikes his clothes, as stated: “When the plague of tzarrat is in a garment.” (Leviticus 13:47) [If] he repents, fine; but if not, [they come] upon his body, as stated: “When a man has on the skin of his flesh.” (Leviticus 13:2) (Tanhuma Tazria 10)

For the author of this latter midrash, tzarrat is a form of divine mercy intended to assist a person in abandoning his or her sinful ways so as to avoid divine punishment. Building on the topical continuation of this subject in Parshat Mitzorah, the author created from this series of maladies a schematic series of warnings intended to steer people away from the sins which might ruin their lives.

If we distill this message for our lives, it would likely urge us to pay close attention to all that happens to us as human beings and as Jews and see life’s events as a means for self-correction. Not a bad piece of advice.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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