Skin Care

The connection between dermatology and emotional well-being is well documented. These Torah readings which discuss the various forms of TZARA’AT always cause me to start scratching my hands and arms. During the second Intifada, I developed an eruption of psoriasis. My dermatologist wanted to know if I had any stress in my life. I wanted to ask him what country he lived in. So, it should come as no surprise that when the Torah described a physical reaction to certain negative behaviors, it was the skin, specifically, which was affected. 

Having stated this reality, I must admit that we have to be very careful when comparing dermatology to the TZARA’AT issues in the Torah. Rav Ovadya S’forno states clearly: None of these phenomena correspond to the skin diseases we read about in medical text books. I agree. So, don’t check TZARA’AT on WebMD. But it is fascinating and informative that mental or spiritual health and skin care can be seen as related issues, and the Torah uses that connection.  

Bearing all of this in mind, we must remember that these Torah ailments only occurred in Eretz Yisrael, and in the ancient world. Our Sages have recognized this non-medical reality, and have spent a lot of intellectual effort to understand these phenomena. We will stick to this week’s Parsha and the TZARA’AT which affected human skin. 

Even though the Talmud says that there are seven causes for this ailment (Erchin 16a), and the Midrash claims ten causes (Vayikra Raba 17:4), many authorities seem to believe that there are three causes for this TZARA’AT. This is probably based on the fact that the verse records three manifestations of the ailment: SE’AT, a swelling; SAPACHAT, a scab; and BAHERET, a discoloration, usually bright or white. 

The most famous approach is that the sufferer had spoken LASHON HARA (gossip). There is basically a consensus (always a rarity among rabbis) on this explanation because it has the only direct evidence in the Torah. In chapter twelve of Bamidbar, Miriam and Aharon talk about Moshe and his wife. Then we read: When the cloud withdrew from the Tent of Meeting, there was Miriam stricken with snow white leprous scales (Bamidbar 12:10). 

The Kli Yakar adds two other sins to the causes of this ailment.  His second cause is haughtiness towards others (GASAT RUACH).  He believes that this is hinted at by the use of cedar and hyssop in the treatment or purification process. Cedar represents arrogance; hyssop symbolizes humility. The third cause, according to this great Rav is TZARAT AYIN, literally ‘narrow eyes’ but it connotes both a love of money and a stinginess towards others. The poor treatment of others, especially is hinted at by the possibility of this afflicting homes, and the love of money as a cause for the ailment is based on the story of Gechazi, the servant of Elisha (Melachim II 5:19-27). 

However, this year in seeking the other two causes for TZA’RA’AT, I offer a modern approach for your consideration. Rav Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etziyon presents convincing arguments for two serious crimes against society as catalysts for this terrible ailment. 

His first presentation is based on a clever inverse logic. The sufferer showed disdain for Cohanim. This makes sense because the things which a METZORA sufferer must do are the opposite of behaviors demanded of Cohanim. They must let their hair grow long, rend their garments, and dwell outside the camp. All behaviors alien to Cohanim. Plus, the entire process of diagnosis and purification must be supervised by Cohanim. To be cured one must show deference to Cohanim; the punishment fits the crime. 

The other cause is the most fascinating to me: betrayal of AM YISRAEL. Rav Meidan takes this position based on inferences derived from the Haftorot of the two Torah readings, Tazria and Metzora, where most of this material is found. The stories are themselves fascinating, but they often get skipped because of seasonal occasions. This year we read neither. 

The first (Melachim ii 4:42-5:19) is about General Naaman of Aram who has come to reinforce Aram’s control over Israel. He contracts TZARA’AT, and is instructing in the cure by Elisha. The story ends with the incident of Gechazi, which I mentioned above. The second (Melachim ii 7:3-20) describes a miraculous salvation from an Aramean army. The central action revolves around four Jews stricken with TZARA’AT (perhaps Gechazi and three sons) who discover the disappearance of the enemy host, and benefit from the discovery by plundering the deserted encampment. They eventually inform the other Jews of the redemption. 

Rav Meidan emphasizes the selfish attitude of the stricken individuals, which is clearly a major case of contempt for the needs of the greater Jewish population. But the end of the second Haftorah is what really interests him. Finally, the lepers decide that they must inform the other Jews about the miracle, and share the wealth and food. The Jews refuse to believe the tidings brought by these pariahs.  In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a), we’re told that Mashiach is tending to the lepers while awaiting the time of redemption. Then Rav Meidan quotes from a poem by Rachel, the great poetess of Kibbutz Degania, about not accepting glad tidings from a leper, and a story by Agnon (Shabbat Necessities) about a poor man who does not want to use money from a dung heap to pay for Shabbat food.  

Rav Meidan concludes: We sometimes have questions and doubts about people in positions of authority, including past and present leaders of Am Yisrael. Sometimes we suspect that there is a conflict of interests, or we object to actions that go against the laws of the Torah…But when the METZORA in question is someone who cares about Am Yisrael, we must accept his tidings of redemption. 

Someone may become a leper or outcast because of disrespect for AM YISRAEL or TORAT YISRAEL, but when they’ve come to see the greatness of the Jewish people hear them out, please. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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