It All Comes from the Inside
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’ath, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen. [Leviticus 14:1-2]
What is metzora and tzara’ath? In this week’s Torah portion, tzara’ath appears to be a disease that could be treated by the priest, or Kohen. The symptoms are discoloration of the skin, particularly the face and head. But tzara’ath can also target a person’s clothes and house. The Kohen is the only one who can decide whether the discoloration is tzara’ath or some other phenomenon.
The King James version of the Bible translates tzara’ath as leprosy. But our sages disagree. They make it clear that tzara’ath cannot be cured by physicians. It is the product of sin, a projection of inner evil.
“Tzara’ath comes from known sins,” says Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the 16th Century Prague rabbi known as the Kli Yakar. “The name of the disease is tzara’ath and the name of the victim is metzora. Because the word ‘metzora’ means the bringing out of evil, in that he brings out all of his hidden evil to expose his evil in the community.”
The Torah says that man is born evil but this can be corrected through following G-d’s ways. We all have evil thoughts. Most of us manage to restrain ourselves. Some translate those thoughts into deeds. We all have our pet hates. Most of us know how to paste a smile for those we can’t stand. Others can’t help spewing hate.
The Talmud in Pesahim [113:2] lists the three most likely to hate each other — dogs, roosters and a sect of Persian priests called Chabarim. “And there are those who say harlots, and there are those who say scholars from Babylonia.”
In modern times, the two groups most likely to engage in rivalry and hatred are politicians and entertainers. The reason: There is no boundary between their public and private lives. With few exceptions, they are always compelled to take center stage. They walk into a room and expect attention. If they don’t receive it, they dominate. Because for them the opposite of attention is isolation.
“If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?” [Judy Garland. 1922-1969]
The inability or refusal to simply be anonymous ensures incessant competition. There’s always a new kid in town, another challenger. The hate and back-biting never cease. There’s no sharing space. You’re either top dog or dead dog.
This kind of person cannot last. His flesh turns white; his head is covered with boils. His possessions rot. There is no natural explanation: It’s a message from G-d that something has to give.
More than 900 years ago, a group of scholars from Germany, France, England and Italy wrote a commentary on the Torah and Talmud. The names of most of these people were never publicized. The group was simply known as Tosofot, or “addition.” In all, they and their successors toiled for some 200 years to explain the scriptures and the sages.
In their commentary on Parshat Metzora, Tosfot, formally known as “The View of the Elders of Tosfot,” see the main problem as the inability of people to simply keep quiet. The mouth is the vehicle in which all of the hate, ridicule, defamation and rumors are expressed. You can’t control your thoughts. But you must control your speech.
“Death and life are in the hand of the tongue,” Tosfot says. “Death is if you utter evil speech, Life is if you engage in Torah. And Torah is the cure for evil speech.”
That doesn’t jibe with the Talmud in Pesahim, which quotes the view that the Babylonian scholars hate each other. How could those who study G-d’s word fall into such a trap? Learning Torah is supposed to bring one to charity and love.
A contemporary of the Kli Yakar was Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal from Prague. Regarded as one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, the Maharal fought for truth at the cost of his livelihood. His wife Perl was known as a Talmudic genius and an editor of her husband’s works.
The Maharal points out that the scholars from Babylonia were extremely competitive. They were also highly cerebral. For some of them, Torah seemed like a competitive sport. They used their superior intellect to cut each other. They could not see or accept the power of the Torah to generate faith and love.
In contrast, the scholars from the Land of Israel were far more grounded. Their approach to Torah was to search for truth rather than prove who was king of the castle. The Maharal explains that Israel marks the center of the world, and thus unity was the natural result of any gathering of scholars.
The Torah’s prescription for tzara’ath begins with reflection. The victim sits alone outside the community for seven days. Away from his family, his career, his friends and enemies, he is forced to ask critical questions: Why is all this happening to me? Why do I look like a ghost? Why do I feel like I’m rotting away? How can I go on like this?
And then he starts all over again. The Kohen shows him how. He essentially reverts to a newborn. Gone are the trappings of ego, money and pleasure. His new garments consist of humility, faith and brotherhood. There simply is no choice.
After this, he may enter the camp, but he shall remain outside his tent for seven days. And it shall be, on the seventh day, that he shall shave off all his hair: [that of] his head, his beard, his eyebrows; indeed, all his hair, he shall shave off. He shall then immerse his garments and immerse his flesh in water, thus becoming clean. [Leviticus 14: 8-9]