Has tzaraat gotten a bum rap?
At first glance this question seems absurd. Any schoolchild with a passing familiarity with Chumash will tell us that tzaraat, commonly translated as leprosy, is the punishment reserved for an individual who has transgressed the prohibition of lashon hara, derogatory speech. Was this not the punishment that Miriam received for criticizing Moshe Rabbenu’s decision to divorce his wife? Furthermore, when Moshe questioned whether Am Yisrael would believe that Gd had actually appeared to him, one of the three signs that Hashem provided him with was that his hand would become leprous. Hashem could have chosen any sign for Moshe to use to prove his bona fides to Am Yisrael. Was not the choice of this specific sign implicit criticism of Moshe Rabbenu’s doubts regarding his compatriots’ willingness to believe that Hashem had in fact appeared to save Bnei Yisrael? By afflicting Moshe with tzaraat, albeit temporarily, has not the message that his doubts have crossed a Halachik red line into loshon hara regarding Bnei Yisrael been delivered?
Indeed, one need not travel so far afield to demonstrate the harsh nature of this punishment. In describing the isolation that is imposed on the mezora, the Torah tells us (13:45-46) that he wears torn clothes, his hair goes uncut and he must remind all passersby that he is impure. In addition he must isolate himself from the community. The parallels to the behavior of mourners do not go unnoted. Ibn Ezra (and in his footsteps Chizkuni) specifically note the parallel.
But some of these sanctions are distinctive to the mezora. Rashi, quoting the gemara in Erchin (16b), points out that his isolation is unique even amongst individuals who have become impure. This is because the cause of his impurity is loshon hara, a behavior which due to its corrosive social nature divides and isolates people and groups which would otherwise be together. His dual punishment and atonement is to be isolated himself. Rav Yehuda Shaviv, in his work “MiSinai Ba” (pp.230-231) develops the theme of punishment and atonement in the following way. An individual who is “addicted” to speaking lashon hara is by nature a social being. By definition then, isolation will be a punishment for him. However this isolation also provides tools for atonement. Firstly, it is very often a nearly impossible task for any of us to break away from undesirable behavior if we remain in the same environment which has encouraged that behavior. This is true of most negative behaviors, and it is true for sins as well. Conversely, by placing this individual in a new environment which is not conducive to undesired behavior, we create a framework within which the sin can be overcome. An environment of isolation is exactly what the gossip-monger needs in order to break the pattern of lashon hara. This is from two perspectives. Firstly he simply does not have the opportunity to speak lashon hara. Moreover, he is now exposed in a most intimate fashion to the reality that his behavior creates for others. As we saw from the gemara in Erchin quoted by Rashi above, one of the many corrosive effects of lashon hara is how it creates distance, in many cases unbridgeable, between people who had formerly been close. Neighbors, good friends, even husband and wife, may become permanently estranged. The isolation now imposed on the mezora creates a similar experience for him. In his isolated state, with no one to share his gossip, the mezora can fully appreciate the gravity of his actions and set forth on a path of repentance.
Having said all this, it may come as a surprise that amongst the Rishonim it was not an uncommon view that tzaraat is a positive thing, a phenomena whose disappearance is cause for regret. In an exceptional philosophical digression, Rambam (Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 16:10) describes the purpose of tzaraat as being a means to wean Bnei Yisrael away from lashon hara as a destructive element and a tool to help Jews use the gift of speech properly. Rambam is very inclusive in his definition of who might benefit from tzoraat. “[Tzoraat…]is not something of the natural world (miminhago shel olam) but rather it was a sign and wonder amongst the Jews in order to warn them (away from) lashon hara”. Rambam then proceeds to describe the progression of the warning signs, beginning with Tzoraat Batim, which afflicts dwellings, continuing to Tzoraat Begadim which attacks garments, and if the individual still fails to repent, culminates with tzaraat on the person himself.
From Rambam’s formulation two points emerge. Firstly, lashon hara (as opposed to any other sin that we know of) was deemed uniquely detrimental in that it triggered the sequence of warning signs described above. Secondly, it appears that Rambam held that all Jews were included in the rubric of tzaraat as a warning about and punishment for lashon hara.
In contrast to Rambam who doesn’t explain why tzaraat no longer exists, Ramban and Seforno (13:47) seem to believe that the application of tzaraat was limited to a time when people were essentially righteous. Ramban explains that tzoraat struck precisely because of the contrast that was created between a people whose very bearing ad demeanor reflects spirituality and Godliness, and the sin which is such a jarring contrast to that image. This also explains why tzaraat was unique to Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. Only in the place where the Divine resides can this contrast be felt.
It is clear that even according to Ramban tzaraat is something which can appear in all strata of Am Yisrael, and not just amongst the Tzadikim. After all, Ramban’s formulation speaks in national/communal terms. Therefore once the conditions have been created for the Shechina to dwell amongst all of Am Yisrael, tzaraat would affect any individual, regardless of his own individual spiritual level.
Seforno is most extreme in his view of tzaraat as being a Divine gift to the Jewish people, going as far as to say that “kol zeh b’chemlat Hashem al amo”; “all of this is a result of Hashem’s mercy on His people”. Tzaraat then, has morphed from a punishment of impurity to an act of Divine mercy!
Seforno also seems to limit this mercy to a time when the majority of Am Yisrael have emulated Hashem in their own lives. Tzaraat is a gift to those who seek a divinely inspired existence but who have been tempted from this path due to their yetzer hara.
As we have seen in other shiurim however, this closeness to Hashem is in itself a two-edged sword. Because the Shechina rests amongst the people, the behavior which is expected of Am Yisrael is of a far higher level and failure to meet that standard is punished swiftly and harshly. Therefore, says Seforno, tzaraat is truly a sign of Divine mercy, as it prompts teshuva amongst those who fall short of the standard before their failings become even more harshly judged. Once we have drifted from this close connection with Hashem, however, the conditions for tzaraat to appear no longer exist.
In light of the positions of Rambam, Ramban and Seforno, one can argue that tzaraat has in fact been misunderstood. Undoubtedly, it is a punishment and a sign of tumah. Nonetheless it is also a sign of Hashem’s concern for his people, a sign which is only given when we are truly close to Him and is lost when we become estranged. As such, might it be appropriate that we recite a “Yehi Ratzon” that we should again be privileged to have tzaraat in our midst?