Parshat Tazria – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
This week we begin reading about the biblical condition or disease known as “tzara’at. The discussion, which spans several chapters, lasts well into next week’s parsha. We often find it difficult to grasp the basic concepts conveyed in these parshiot mainly because we do not know of any contemporary cases of tzara’at. Though tzara’at is often translated as leprosy this would seem to be incorrect. Leprosy is a known medical condition which is treated by medical science. Tzara’at, on the other hand stems from a spiritual source and is hence healed or purified with a ceremony presided over by a Kohen.
It is well known that tzara’at is seen as a punishment for speaking lashon hara. This notion stems from the story of Miriam who spoke lashon hara about Moshe Rabeinu and was then inflicted with tzara’at. As a result of this, Miriam was banished from the camp and the entire nation waited for seven days until she was tehora (pure) and so fit to return to the camp. We will suggest that lashon hara is in fact one symptom of a trait which is punished by tzara’at.
Several people in Tanach were inflicted with tzara’at. Let us investigate these cases and look for the common factor which unites them. The first person is Moshe Rabeinu himself. One of the signs given by Hashem to Moshe in order to convince Am Yisrael that he was indeed a messenger from God, was by means of his hand being inflicted with tzara’at. While this can be seen as an example of the power of God and not hold any significance beyond that, some mefarshim interpret this as a form of rebuke to Moshe. According to Rashi, the choice of tzara’at was a punishment to Moshe for speaking lashon hara about Am Yisrael, questioning their belief in God. Other commentaries state that although Hashem clearly stated that “veshamu lekolecha, they (Am Yisrael) will listen to your voice”, Moshe questions this and thus is in fact doubting God. (For a more detailed discussion see Shemot 4:1-3 and commentaries.)
We have already mentioned Miriam who is the second person in Tanach with tzara’at. As stated, the reason for her contracting this condition would seem to be stated very clearly in the Torah. Miriam speaks against Moshe and therefore is punished with tzara’at. However, although it would appear that Miriam instigated the conversation, the pessukim in Bamidbar (12:1-3) state that Aharon was also involved. Yet he is not punished in the same way. Why is this? One of the claims made by Miriam is that there is no reason for Moshe to lead his family life any different from anyone else just on account of the fact that he is spoken to by Hashem. After all, states Miriam, “halo gam banu diber, has He not spoken also with us”? This question suggests a note of arrogance. Is Miriam really suggesting that she and her brother Aharon have the same sort of relationship with God as does their brother, Moshe? If so, this is no ordinary form of lashon hara but something more.
We find a case of tzara’at in a non Jew in Melachim, chapter 5. (This is actually the designated haftara for parshat tazria, but it is seldom read, this year being ousted by the haftara of Parshat hachodesh.) The Tanach tell us of Na’aman, a general in the army of Aram who, despite being a mighty warrior, suffered from tzara’at. Incidentally, the fact that Na’aman was able to continue with a normal life and even lead the army of his country despite being inflicted with tzara’at, is further proof that tzara’at is not leprosy. Na’aman is eventually sent to Elisha who instructs him to rinse in the Jordan river. He gets angry at the suggestion that such an action will have any effect on his condition. A close reading of the pessukim there will show that Na’aman did not merely take offence at the request made of him by Elisha, but also at the lack of respect shown to a general of his stature. However, his advisors convince him to do as Elisha suggests, and he is then miraculously cured of his tzara’at. As a result of this, Na’aman praises Elisha and Hashem, thereby belittling himself in deference to the Almighty.
The continuation of this story brings us to the next case of tzara’at. Na’aman offers to give Elisha a gift as a token of appreciation for curing him of his condition. Elisha declines this offer as he does not wish to minimize the Kiddush Hashem which had been achieved by the assisting of a general from a neighboring country. Elisha’s servant, Gechazi, was troubled by this and pursued Na’aman, telling him that Elisha had changed his mind and wished to accept the generous offer. Na’aman obliged and presented Gechazi with the gift. On discovering this, Elisha decreed that Gechazi himself will then become inflicted with tzara’at and so it was. Why was this the fitting punishment for Gechazi? One could argue that this was “middah genegged middah”, he caused the Kiddush Hashem achieved from Na’aman’s meeting with Elisha to be lessened and therefore he, Gechazi became inflicted with the very same tzara’at that caused that meeting. [Elisha uses the words “vetzara’at Na’aman tidbak becha, the tzara’at of Na’aman will attach itself to you”. (Melachim Bet 5:27). This shows an intrinsic connection between the two cases of tzara’at.]
However, we could suggest that Gechazi committed a different sin. Gechazi decided to override Elisha and accept the gift from Na’aman despite the objection of Elisha. Gechazi may not have acted out of sheer greed but rather out of a concern for the entire “bnei Hanevi’im” community. We see throughout the stories of Elisha a constant concern with the nurture and preservation of a group of people who work under Elisha and possibly assist him in conveying the prophetic message to the entire nation. Perhaps Gechazi acted out of concern for these students, hoping to gain a donation which will allow him to feed a few more mouths or house some new recruits. Nevertheless, such a decision could not have been made without Elisha. By doing as he did, Gechazi acted in arrogance and demonstrated a complete lack of humility.
This last point can be applied to the other cases of tzara’at discussed thus far. Moshe may have acted somewhat presumptuously by suggesting that he new better than God how the people would react when he approached them and spoke of his conversation with God. Miriam too, as we have shown, was some what conceited to think that she and Aharon were on a similar spiritual level to that of Moshe Rabbeinu. It is possible that although Aharon was involved in the conversation, he did not go so far as to suggest that he and Moshe were equals and thus only Miriam and not he was inflicted with tzara’at. We have further seen that Na’man became more humble as a result of his tzara’at and the miraculous healing process.
This theory is supported by a further case of tzar’at found in Melachim but in more detail in Divrei Hayamim Bet (26: 16-21). The king of Yehuda, Uziahu decided that he wanted to bring the ketoret (incense) in the Bet Mikdash. Undeterred by the many kohanim who told him that this was a job reserved for the priests, he marched into the mikdash holding the ketoret. In the midst of this, his forehead was struck with tzara’at and so it remained until day he died. The text there tells us exactly the trait that caused Uziahu to make this mistake. “Uchechezkato, gava libo ad lehashchit, when he was established (as a king), his heart became strong to the point of destruction” or in other words he became arrogant and conceited. (Geva lev is the term used for conceited.) This caused him to believe that he had the right to bring the ketoret. This caused him to think that he was above the law, even above the law of God Himself. The punishment for such actions and such thoughts is tzara’at.
As we have seen, the trait of conceitedness, the lack of humility is the sin which results in tzara’at. Maybe for this reason the Torah tells us categorically after Miriam had spoken about Moshe, “vehaish Moshe anav meod mikol ha’adam asher al p’nei ha’adama, Moshe was very humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).
Lashon hara is one symptom of a lack of humility. When we consider ourselves to be better than those around us, we tend to speak about them in derogatory terms. When we act as if we are more important than our peers, we think little of putting them down. For this reason, Rambam in Hilchot De’ot, lists humility as one of the traits in which we should not follow the middle path; we must go to the extreme and understand that the opposite of humility can lead to disastrous results for society. The metzora is sent out of the camp for an entire week; he becomes an outcast. After seven days with no one with whom to interact but himself, he will hopefully learn his lesson and look differently at those around him.
Thus, while tzara’at may not be a phenomenon that we come across today, the message that it portrays remains as crucial as the day when the intricate laws were given to Am Yisrael.