The centerpiece of this week’s double parsha is tzarat. We read about its every form, stage of development and complications.
[The parsha actually goes beyond tzarat and treats an entire category of tumah- that which emanates from within our bodies. As opposed to last week’s parsha where we read about external items that cause one to be tamei (certain dead animals, rodents etc.) this week focuses on those items which stem from within ourselves that can make us tamei. The parsha details yoledet, zav zavah, nidah and of course metzora. There are significant halachic differences between the two groups. The limitations concerning entering the mikdash placed upon those who are tamei due to an internal source are much more stringent than those who are tamei due to an external one. In fact the “internal group” is more stringent than even the most famous of tumah generators- a corpse.]
The entire issue of tzarat is seen as a spiritual affliction and one that has nothing whatsoever to do with a physical ailment. The physical side is merely a symptom of a spiritual malady. The Rambam stresses this point at the end of his discussion of the halachot of tzarat (16:10). He argues that the symptoms of tzarat as they appear in homes, on garments and on ones body are all different. They have different colors and shapes and yet they are all called tzarat. The Rambam goes on to echo the gemara in Erachin which points to the issue of lashon hara as the basis for the punishment of tzarat. The process is a gradual one, striking first the home, then the clothing and eventually striking the body of the non repentant sinner.
The most striking evidence for this evaluation seems to be the tzarat that affects the home. I would like to spend some time reviewing the different attitudes of Chazal towards the tzarat of the home.
The pasuk states “When you will come to the land of Cannan that I am to give you as inheritance, I will give a plague of tzarat in your home”.
Is this pasuk the good news or the bad news? We will enter Eretz Yisrael (Cannan), we will build homes and yet we will be plagued. Not only that but the verb used “V natati” “I will give” seems to be quite upbeat for the punch line of the sentence.
It seems to be this linguistic ambivalence that led to an interesting debate.
Rashi quotes a Midrash (R. Yehudah) that plays on the positive word of “I will give” and explains that this is indeed great news. The result of having tzarat in my home is the need to dismantle it. When I do so I will find the treasures that the previous inhabitants had hidden in the walls. It seems that the Cannanites (note the introduction to the parsha as quoted above “When you will come to the land of Cannan”) were scared of the possibility of Am Yisrael conquering the land, as we here about in the Shirat Hayam and later in Yehoshua. In order to safeguard their possessions they buried them in the walls of their homes. In a strange way the onset of the tzarat will force me to dismantle the house revealing the hidden treasures.
I will admit that this poses a very challenging reading of the entire parsha. If we assume that the general message of tzarat is based in sin, this becomes very hard to digest. It seems that we are faced with yet another instance of a clear message from God delivered in a physical way meant to indicate a spiritual reality. The problem is I have no clue what the message actually is.
The gemara in Yoma 11b cites another opinion concerning tzarat of the home. According to R. Meir the purpose of the phenomenon is to punish the miserly, who refuse to lend their neighbors household items. The selfish neighbor has spent years explaining to all of his street mates that he would love to lend them the things that they need but unfortunately he simply does not own any of them. When his home is struck with tzarat and he is forced to empty the entire contents of his house onto the sidewalk, his true physical as well as spiritual worth is obvious to all.
In R. Meir’s view Tzarat of the home is definitely a punishment as we would imagine is the case with tzarat of the garment or the body. However the punishment is much more ironic and intense. The sinner himself is stuck with the extremely difficult situation of being faced with his own lies. He is not only being punished by God but is forced to admit his crime to his neighbors by his own actions. I am reminded of the case of Yehuda and Tamar where Yehudah steps forward and admits his sin in public. In some ways the sinner in this case is forced to be greater than even Yehudah.
The gemara in Erachin 17a poses a similar position concerning a robber. The robber is forced to display all of the stolen goods that no one has suspected him of having taken. Once again the tzarat is used as a method to expose the shortcomings of the individual.
It is clear that R. Yehuda and R.Meir have very different views of the issue. It could be that this explains the cryptic phrase used by the homeowner when he approaches the Kohen. “Canegah” “I have something that appears like tzarat”. He does not make a definitive statement rather a hesitant one. His hesitation may be not only on the factual level, was what I noticed considered tzarat. He may be very concerned with the implications of what he has seen. Does he approach the Kohen with the excitement of R. Yehuda’s view, as an individual who has purchased a winning lottery ticket? Or does he arrive at the Kohen with the apprehension of R. Meir’s view, as he imagines his entire life about to be exposed to the average passerby?
I think this dilemma helps us understand the general idea of tzarat in all of its forms. I doubt that things are as simple as they are presented to us as children; if we speak lashon hara we get tzarat. Had things been that simple on this or any other spiritual issue there would be very little value in freedom of choice. The onset of a small discolored patch is meant to wake us up; we are to reevaluate ourselves in a true cheshbon nefesh. The result of such an accounting may be positive or negative or, the most likely possibility, both positive and negative. Saints and the purely wicked are hard to find. Most of us fall in the middle and we need wakeup calls to inspire us to reevaluate and push for the better. I think that it is significant that tzarat process can be immediate or can take time- one, two or even three weeks to determine the status of a negah. There are times that we can notice things in our lives at once, but more often it takes time. We need to examine them today and then wait a week or two and see how they develop.
Tzarat sends the message of cheshbon nefesh. It sends the message of conclusions to be drawn after a fair time of examination, and it sends the message that while we approach the cheshbon nefesh with fear we may actually walk away much richer than when we started.