At the end of this week’s parsha we read the story of Miriam and her leprosy. The discussion of leprosy in this parsha is very different than its treatment in Tazria. In Tazria the major focus was the tuma aspect while here we are dealing with another manifestation of leprosy, the banishment from the camp.
In truth if we examine the halachot of the metzora we can see that there are two very different spheres within which we are operating. Some of the halachot clearly are based on the status of tuma of the metzora, as we are familiar with in many other forms of tuma. The fact that a metzora can “transfer” the tuma by carrying an object, or sitting on one is familiar from other types of tuma. In addition the metzora is even more stringent in that he can transfer his tuma to anything in the same house as himself. This as well is familiar to us from “tumat met”, though there are differences.
In the other sphere are a series of halachot that seem to have nothing to do with tuma at all. The metzora must tear his clothes and change the manner in which he dresses. These items have no model to follow in the world of tuma. The prototype for such actions is in the area of mourning and excommunication. These behaviors are required by the mourner or by one who has been shunned by a Bet Din for noncompliance with their rulings. It would seem that the idea is that one is removed from the normal social structure due to ones own sorrow (the mourner) or by the will of the society (the individual in “cherem”) or because God has declared one unfit to live within the normal parameters of society (the metzora).
There is a large grey area in between the two poles listed above. We have numerous halachot that bridge the gap and have both elements, tuma and banishment.
In this week’s parsha we find Miriam banished from the camp. The source for the extent of the banishment is the focus of a debate in the Gemara in Pesachim (67a). According to R. Shimon a metzora is just another one of the people who are tamei. By the same token that a zav or a person who has been in contact with a corpse must leave the camp so to must a metzora. The only difference is the extent of how far one must go. The more severe the tuma the further one must go. The metzora is the most severe and therefore he is not allowed onto any of the camp (as opposed to the others that are restricted form only parts of the camp).
[The Gemara understands that there were three camps in the desert: The Mishkan where an individual who was tamei met could not go, the Levi Camp where an zav could not go and the Machane Yisrael where the leper was banned from]
R. Yehuda argues that the distancing of the leper stems from a totally different passuk (Vayikra 13:46) “he should be alone outside the camp”. According to R. Yehuda we should view this as an unrelated case to all normal tumot. In general a person who is tamei is restricted from entering the mishkan/mikdash but may feel free to live at home. In the case of the metzora he is banished form his very home. This, argues R. Yehuda, does not stem from tuma but rather from being banished. In fact if a metzora does enter the camp he is not liable to receive lashes while if he were to go as far as to enter the mikdash he would.
It seems that the identification of the tzarat with lashon hara is related to this second aspect of the metzora. In general tuma is a state that happens to an individual and we do not associate any culpability to having become tamai. When it comes to tzarat Chazal felt that it was a punishment for having spoken lashon hara. This of course is based on the story of Miriam in our parsha where she is stricken by the tzarat immediately after having spoken about Moshe. I think that in addition to this is also the background to the very halachot of the metzora as we have demonstrated above.
Given our analysis above I think we can better understand the placement of the story of Miriam. Sefer Bamidbar focuses n the camp. From the very opening of the book where the tribal assignments were made to the exact directions in which they were to cam p and travel the focus is the development of the camp. Even when we read about tuma in Sefer Bamidbar the result of the tuma is not simply an affront to the individual’s personal status but it is rather a reflection on the entire nation and its camp.
If we look for a message to take with us I think we can say that metzorza teaches us the integral connection between ones own effort and actions and the effect that one has on the bigger picture of the Am. If we are to fulfill the joint mission that we have of making sure our cam p is pure it must begin with the individual effort to make ourselves holy.