Our Sages posit at least 7 suggestions (Talmud, Arakhin 16a) to help us make sense of the cause of the mysterious disease, tzaraas. Presumably, if we understand the disease and its spread, then we can control it, thereby protecting ourselves. However, when multiple reasons are given for a phenomenon it’s a good indicator that no single reason is satisfactory. See for example the many Midrashic sources on last week’s Torah portion (Shemini) that attempt to understand/explain the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu when they came “lifnei Hashem” – before God.
The verses that talk about Shabbat occupy a fraction of space in the Torah compared to the lengthy description of tzaraas (a death-like manifestation characterized by skin decay, that is commonly understood as the archetype of all God-given disease). Yet nowhere in the Torah is any reason given for tzaraas. Neither is any judgment imposed on the metzora – the person afflicted with tzaraas. I’m no etymologist, but it seems significant that the Torah doesn’t use machalah – disease in describing tzaraas. Instead nega is used, connoting touch. This would help explain why Moshe and Miriam are the only Torah personalities explicitly “touched” by God in this way; perhaps you need to be on a tremendously high spiritual level to experience tzaraas. .
Moshe is raised away from his community, “michutz lamachaneh” – outside the camp – a term we encounter in reference to the metzora. Later, he is forced to flee Egyptian society, leaving the comforts of royalty for the desert; a precursor for encountering the Divine at the burning bush. There, his hand turns white with tzaraas as a symbol that he will be an extension/agent of the Yad Hachazaka – the Mighty (Divine) Hand.
Like Moshe, Joseph, and our matriarchs & patriarchs before them, the Jewish people themselves were displaced from areas where they lived in relative comfort to live a nomadic and uncertain existence wandering in the desert. (It’s no surprise that one Medrash teaches that as many as 4/5ths of the Jews were not prepared to sacrifice the life they knew, and chose to stay behind in the “comfort zone” of Egypt rather than voyage into the wilderness.) Our Sages teach a principle: Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim – what happens to our ancestors is an indicator or signpost for us. Uncertainty and departure from our prior routines and way of life, seem to be a prerequisite for achieving a higher spiritual stature and a closer encounter with G-d. The life and rituals of the metzora reinforce this point as s/he goes through isolation, disruption, and periods of waiting and uncertainty. Along the way she encounters the Kohein, God’s ambassador, to guide her back to the community.
When the prophet Bilam praises the Jewish people for dwelling alone (Bamidbar 23:9), he appears awed by their courage to be contrarian, to live in relative isolation, and through that to achieve greater spiritual heights. How appropriate then, to see this language used with the metzora too: “badad yeshev…” It’s as though the Torah is praising him for the courage to isolate. As we’ve all experienced, an isolation of indeterminate length can – to use my British understatement – be unnerving and distressing. Imagine if – like the Metzora being visited by the Kohein, or Moshe at the burning bush, – we could feel God’s presence reassuring us.
Chassidic sources point our attention to the root of the word tzaraas. The first letter is ‘tzadik’ – a righteous person, followed by reish & ayin, spelling ra “evil” – the Metzora personifies the age-old question that screams from the core of so many that suffer: tzadik v’ra lo – why do the righteous have to suffer? Acknowledging that sometimes the reasons why and who disease strikes is elusive, while perhaps not a comfortable feeling, can allow us to better acknowledge the Divine Hand behind all that happens. The metzora – and associated concepts of disease and isolation – can serve as a reminder that chaotic and uncertain periods of our life can lead to greater God awareness and closeness.
When viewed this way, the narrative of shame and stigma that evolves from the (mis)attribution of fault or sin to the metzora, not only belittles her stature as someone who encounters and is touched by God, but attributes false assumptions about the reason for disease in general, and our ability (rather than God’s) to control it.
Spiritual purity and impurity – life and death – pervade Leviticus, and our personal and collective history. Today many still find ourselves mechutz lamachaneh – isolated from our everyday routines and places, surrounded by reminders of our own fragility (if not on our skin then in the technology we hold in our hands). The loving all-powerful God we thought we knew and could explain (or even ‘control’ through mitzvah-observance) is painfully hidden.
As we unite in our shared experience of separateness and reflect on the implications of living in isolation, perhaps we can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that we are one step closer to Mashiach who also embodies the spiritual qualities of tzaraas: “Mashiach is sitting and suffering together with all those who are suffering… is called a Metzora because just as the Metzora suffers, Mashiach suffers for the sins of Israel (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a/b).” Could it be that the secret and harbinger of redemption lies among all this suffering?
I write this on Yom Ha’atzmaut so I’ll close with a relevant metaphor from Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar one of the greatest Sages of 18th Century Morocco, known by his most famous publication, the Ohr HaChaim. He writes that the Metzora banished outside the camp is compared to Israel being sent into exile; his return or ‘homecoming’ symbolizes our national redemption. Having each had our turn this year to experience the particular bitterness and narrow confines of exile, may we merit to experience and celebrate personal and communal redemption.