Tazria: Learning from Loneliness

What is worse: disease, or being very lonely? Sadly, this is a dilemma many have had to face. In this week’s Parsha, we find an answer. The Torah says that in the case of a malicious and serial gossiper, someone who has been punished by God with leprosy due to their overwhelming tendency to slander others, they must go through a ritual to reenter society.

“He is a man afflicted with tzara’at (ritual leprosy); he is unclean. The kohen shall surely pronounce him unclean; his lesion is on his head. And the person with tzara’at, in whom there is the lesion, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be unshorn, he shall cover himself down to his mustache and call out, “Impure! Impure!”

If this is not humiliating enough, the instructions keep coming:

“All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain unclean. He is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Vayikra chapter 13)

Heartbreaking. 

Having this skin disease must be terrifying. You don’t know for how long it will be there or how this will all end. Adding to that uncertainty, having to announce oneself to the world as “tameh— impure” needing to grow one’s hair and tear your garments must not be devastating. And toping this all off, he must be sent out of the camp and sit in solitude. What can make a person deserve such a horrible fate? 

The Talmud (Arachin, 16b), finds itself deeply troubled by this very question:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nadav asked Rabbi Ḥanina…what is different and notable about a leper, that the Torah states: “He shall dwell alone; outside of the camp shall be his dwelling” (Leviticus 13:46)?”

Not often does the Talmud use such bold language to pose a question about an established law in the Torah. The treatment given to the person with Tzara’at seems uniquely harsh. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandies, dean of the Herzog academy in Israel, notes that of all the difficult fates inflicted on the Metzora, loneliness is singled out as the most difficult one. No one asks why he deserves the skin disease; no one wonders why he deserves the torn garments and unkempt hair—it is the loneliness that is seen as the most difficult of all. 

Sadly, it is only recently that we have begun seeing loneliness for the harsh plight that it is. With the harsh quarantining of many—particularly seniors—society came to realize the harsh pain of loneliness. Notably the isolation surrounding times of celebration. As Passover of 2020 approached, while most people were in strict quarantine, we came to realize how painful loneliness can be. Celebrating Passover alone at home without any family can be difficult and even heartbreaking. But loneliness had not surfaced on that year alone; it had been a long-standing problem we needed to confront long before 2020. 

I am reminded of a heartbreaking story, beautifully written by a 14 year old girl who is a member of the Chabad community, a story that highlights how loneliness affects everyone. The young lady, named Leah, wrote on May 22, 2018, on the Chabad news site COLIVE: 

“As I am completing 9th-grade high school in Crown Heights, I wanted to share with you an incident I was even too embarrassed to share with my own parents.

I grew up on Shlichus (i.e. when Chabad families go out to a community to build Jewish life in a location often remote and isolated from large Jewish communities) and left home for the first time to learn in Crown Heights. Before school began, I was really nervous. I was nervous about fitting in, peer pressure and just simply making good friends.

The most difficult part of being away from home and my family is Shabbos.

From Sunday and on, I am constantly worrying where would I eat for Shabbos dinner on Friday night and then there is Shabbos day with its undefined and fluctuating meal times. I didn’t realize was how much pressure I would face on a weekly basis.

I have gotten only a handful of invitations for Shabbos over this school year. Most of them were initiated by myself. You have no idea how hard it is for a 14-year-old to approach others to be invited out. Or get the awkward response, “uhh I don’t think my parents are hosting this week.”

One week, no invitation ever came. When Friday came around, the dorm mother invited me to her home. It was a real lonely moment, I just thought to myself out of the 100 classmates could anyone have included me in their Shabbos table? Not to mention there’s Shabbos day too.

Growing up on Shlichus, I would be the one always inviting others. Now, I was the one that had to be invited and wasn’t. I felt so alone I went to the grocery store bought myself a bulkale(bread role), some food and ate alone in my dorm. On that Shabbos, I cried myself to bed.”

This beautiful, yet heartbreaking account, highlights the impact loneliness can have on each and every human being. Emerging research is beginning to show the devastating impact loneliness has on our bodies—not only on our minds. This is why the Talmud wonders, out of punishments, why is it that the Torah inflicted loneliness on the Metzora. 

So what is the answer? Why does the Metzorah deserve this? The Talmud goes on to explain why this fate comes to the person with ritual leprosy, the Metzora:

“He replied: By speaking malicious speech, he separated between husband and wife and between one person and another; therefore, he is punished with leprosy, and the Torah says: “He shall dwell alone; outside of the camp shall be his dwelling.”

The only thing that can make one deserving of loneliness is inflicting it on others. Only a person who sows division and regularly—and voluntarily—inflicts loneliness on others, can be deserving of this harsh punishment. 

So, what should the Metzorah do with their isolation? What are they to do in this predicament? A story that took place a century and a half ago gives us the answer. 

It was during the 1848 cholera outbreak in the city of Vilna, Lithuania. The Jewish community suffered great losses during this pandemic, and people were dying every day. During the outbreak, an overly zealous young man came to the great rabbi in the city—Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter. 

“Rabbi!”, he said with excitement. “I have discovered the reason for which God has punished our city with this terrible plague. There is a group of unscrupulous individuals in our city who do not heed the words of our Torah, live according to their desires, and do not respect our traditions—it is due to their sins that we have all been punished”.

Rabbi Israel Salanter looked at the young man and asked him: “do you know why it is that a person with Tzra’at (ritual leprosy) gets sent out of the city for total isolation? The slander that he speaks is not necessarily wrong. Gossip, negative speech, and Lashon Hara are forms of forbidden speech even if they are factually true. The reason the Metzra is sent out of the camp is because all he can see around him is negativity. He is not able to see the good in those around him. This is why he is sent out alone, so he can focus only on himself and correct his negative perspective.”

This is why the Me’tzora is condemned to temporary loneliness. Nothing else is deserving of the terrible punishment of isolation. 

As we see a deepening understanding of the role of loneliness, like the Metzorah, let us take this opportunity to understand how painful loneliness is for others. Let us make sure that girls like Leah in Crown Heights, or those who have no one to go to for the Passover Seder even during usual times, are never alone. Let us become more sensitized to the power of us coming together and make sure that no one, no one, is ever subjected to the devastating feelings of loneliness. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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