For the past two weeks, the Torah portion has concentrated nearly exclusively on a condition called “tzara’at”. Tzara’at, often misclassified as leprosy, is a disorder that can manifest itself on a person’s skin, on an article of his clothing, or even on his house . A person who has contracted tzara’at is called a “metzora”. The Torah describes in minute detail the symptoms of tzara’at, how it is diagnosed, and how it is cured. Tzara’at of any kind causes ritual impurity. If a metzora comes into contact with another human being, that person also contracts ritual impurity. A person who has been diagnosed with tzara’at, must, like a mourner, tear his clothing and may not cut his hair. He may not enter the Beit HaMikdash. He is sent into solitary confinement outside of the camp until he has been cured.
When was the last time you saw a person with tzara’at? Leprosy still exists – over 200,000 people are diagnosed with leprosy annually. But tzara’at? Not so much. I have scoured the internet and I cannot find any recorded case of tzara’at. My guess is that it hasn’t been around for at least a thousand years. Why is this so?
Perhaps, as tzara’at is so fundamentally relevant to spiritual impurity, it is pertinent only when the Beit HaMikdash is standing. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, perhaps the most prolific and influential Torah scholar of the middle ages, teaches otherwise. The Rambam writes in the Mishne Torah [Hilchot Tum’at Tzara’at 11:6] “The purification of a person afflicted by tzara’at is carried out in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, while the Beit HaMikdash is standing and in an era when it is not standing.” In other words, tzara’at should still exist today. Indeed, many stories in rabbinical folklore tell of Rabbis who warned their disciples that the lesion on their arm was quite possibly tzara’at. This returns us to our original question: Why have we never seen any documented cases of tzara’at?
An answer can be found in another location in the Mishne Torah [Hilchot Terumot 9:7]: “A metzora is considered… impure, provided he is declared impure by a Kohen whose lineage is established ”. Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, better known as the “Radvaz”, who lived in Spain in the sixteenth century, writes in his gloss on the Mishne Torah that the reason the impurity of tzara’at is not observed in the present age is that we have no Kohanim whose lineage is established to declare people ritually impure. The physical conditions for the impurity, however, may very well exist.
The requirement for a Kohen to both conclusively diagnose and to cure tzara’at is explicitly written in the Torah. When a person suspects that he might have tzara’at, the Torah tells him [Vayikra 13:2]: “If a man has [something icky on] his flesh and it forms a lesion of tzara’at, he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen or to one of his sons, the Kohanim”. After a person has been physically cured of tzara’at, before he may re-enter the camp he must undergo a procedure that includes the offering of sacrifices and the shaving of all of his hair. The procedure begins with the following words [Vayikra 14:2]: “This is the law of the metzora on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the Kohen.” Without the direct involvement of a bona fide Kohen, a person cannot legally contract or be cured from tzara’at. As no Kohen living today has a bulletproof pedigree , no person today can officially contract tzara’at.
Why is it so critical that tzara’at be controlled specifically by a Kohen? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, speaking in Boston in 1977, puts a psychological spin on his answer. Rabbi Soloveichik explains that it ancient times, people treated skin disease as we today treat cancer. The victim feared discovery. As soon as the disease became known, the victim lost his human dignity. People were afraid to associate with him. Often he was driven from town or even killed. This is not the Jewish approach. When a Jew suspects that he might have tzara’at, the Kohen is called immediately. The Kohen serves not only as his friend and confidant, but also as his connection with the outside world. The Kohen would go wherever the metzora went, even outside the camp, offering him assurances of of hope: “You are needed, you will get well, you will return to society.” All that the Kohen did was in the name of human dignity.
I would like to propose an alternate, perhaps even diametrically opposed, approach, based on something I once heard from Rabbi Y.Y. Rubenstein in Manchester. In previous lessons , we have discussed the sordid lineage of the Kohanim. Rabbi Y.Y. asked how it could be that G-d chose specifically the Tribe of Levi to serve in the Beit HaMikdash and to [Devarim 30:10] “teach Jacob [G-d’s] ordinances”? Here is a tribe whose ancestor, Levi, not only killed the entire village of Shechem in cold blood along with his brother Shimon, but, according to our Sages in the Midrash, was responsible for throwing his brother Joseph in a pit to die there. Should Levi be serving in the Holy of Holies? Should he be teaching your children Torah? Where is his “yichus”? Rabbi Y.Y. answered by telling us that what differentiates an extraordinary teacher from an ordinary teacher is a burning passion for what he teaches. A person who lacks this passion cannot ignite another person’s imagination. Levi had an abundance of passion. Indeed, they had an overabundance of passion. It was raw passion that caused him to kill Shechem and his townsmen after Shechem had raped his sister.
While Levi’s passion is revealed early on, it is only at the sin of the golden calf (egel) where the source of his passion is revealed. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees the egel, he shouts out [Shemot 32:26] “Whoever is on G-d’s side, let him come to me!” Immediately, “the entire Tribe of Levi gathered around him”. Levi was passionate for the honour of G-d. Levi could not fathom forsaking Moses with a barnyard animal. When Moses screamed for help, Levi could not run fast enough. Burning with passion, he avenged the trampled honour of G-d. It is this passion for G-d that justifies G-d’s choice of Levi as His earthly envoy. In the same vein, Levi killed Shechem because Shechem had raped not his sister, but the daughter of G-d’s emissary, Jacob.
Our Sages teach that tzara’at is not a physical disease, but, rather, a physical symptom of a spiritual malaise. While the symptoms of tzara’at manifest themselves on the flesh, the source of the malaise is in the soul. The Talmud in Tractate Arachin [16a] lists seven sins that are punishable via the contraction of tzara’at, including murder, theft, and taking an oath in vain. But the most well-known cause is slander. In the words of our Sages, the title “metzorah” comes from the words “motzi shem ra” – “to slander a person’s good name”.
Slander is a highly toxic cocktail of pride and passion. It is the end result of feelings of superiority combined with indignation at being wronged, at not getting all that is deserved. In Hebrew, we call this the “Achlu-li Shatu-li (he ate my… he drank my… ) Syndrome”. How dare he? After all, compared to me, he is such a [insert slander here]. When our slanderer begins to show signs of tzara’at, the Kohen pays him a call. The Kohen and the slanderer may share the same passion, but whereas the slanderer exercises his passion in verbal attacks against his fellow man, the Kohen exercises the very same passion in the service of G-d and, as a result, in the service of his fellow man. The Kohen is a living example to the slanderer that there is a fork in the road that he is on: one direction will take him out of the camp while the other direction will bring him to the front and centre. The choice, as always, is his.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.