Parshat Tazria-Metzora

isolated figure

In the rabbinic tradition, the text of Tazria-Metzora presents a cascade of punishments for sins related to our treatment of others: haughtiness, selfish manipulation, slander, and lashon hara, among others. The nature of the punishments is that they are graduated, which gives the sufferer several opportunities to repent. Also, the final form of punishment (a disgusting skin disease) leads to separation from others, which provides the sinner space to reset their social relationships. The rituals associated with the metzora allow a repentant sinner to reintegrate with society, cleaned-up, so to speak. The implication, which the tradition highlights, is that surface problems can be blessings because they can lead to the sufferer to correct deeper causes

Leviticus (13: 46)
He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Because he, by slanderous statements, parted man and wife, or a man from his friend, he must be parted from everybody.

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
A person with tzara’as must live me’chutz la’machaneh — outside the camp … a person with tzara’as is considered a dead person. He is thought of as such due to the fact that his isolation causes him to lose his ability to give.

The punishment reflects the form of the sin. Why is haughtiness and lashon hara associated with isolation? How is the punishment reflecting the sin? Why is the ability to give so essential to being alive?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Hashem created speech, and He intended it to create a connection and closeness between man and his fellow man and between man and his Creator. A person who speaks lashon hara is utilizing this powerful tool for the opposite purpose: he is creating division and causing hatred between friends. Therefore, “A person who speaks lashon hara banishes the Divine Presence into the Heavens” (Devarim Rabbah 8:10).

Sefer Ha-Chinuch
The writer of this medieval text presents tzaraas as a fictitious/unreal/supernatural set of diseases which provide an ideal model of spiritual disorder and its treatment for the sufferer, the metzora. The primary symptom of the disease is a patch of skin that is a bright white, it must be at least eggshell white to be considered tzaraas. Snow white or lime white are more serious forms. As the disease heals it may go from snow white to eggshell white. When the color diminishes to less bright than eggshell white the person is tahor (ritually pure) and healed. The person is reintegrated into society through ritual immersion in water, which is symbolic of creation and rebirth.

  • Tzaraas is not a natural disease, it is caused by spiritual disorder. The best example is lashon hara, ill-willed gossiping. Other forms of social misbehavior can also cause tzaraas. Social manipulation for the purpose of raising oneself and lowering another is the common characteristic.
  • The first and most important step to healing, is realizing that tzaraas is not a matter of chance. It is a message from God in the form of a punishment. The sufferer must examine and correct their inner self.
  • Most people cannot do this alone but need help. They need help from a person who is an atoner, who regularly repents from sin. The atoner may also need help from a person who has expertise in the particular sin that the metzora is suffering from.
  • Most people will require a period of solitude to undergo this spiritual reorganization.
  • After they are healed they will also need help reintegrating. Specific rituals help with this reintegration, the final one is ritual immersion in water. After this the person is tahor.

For less extreme spiritual disorders, how might these ideas be applied?

Midrash Tanchuma as retold by Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
… an impoverished kohen intended to leave his family and home in Israel to seek a better living abroad. He revealed his intentions to his wife and began teaching her the laws of tzara’as so that she could substitute for him during his absence. “Check the hairs of the afflicted person,” he explained, “each and every hair on a person’s body is nurtured by its own follicle, a wellspring that Hashem created for it. If the hair has withered, you will know that its source beneath the skin has dried up.” Upon hearing this his wife declared, “If Hashem created every hair with a wellspring to drink from wouldn’t Hashem provide sustenance for you, a human being with children to support?!”

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
[this story teaches] the importance of a good friend or spouse to point out our errors. … A good friend … can rescue us from these mistakes; often with a single insightful statement.

Why is having a good friend as a “sounding board,” so important? How can a good friend help us to heal from our mistakes?

Rabbi Leibowitz also considers that the Torah describes a graduated set of punishments and healing rituals. What is the significance of this?

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
Emotions reign over logic. … When we contemplate our gift of speech, we realize that not only do we have to refrain from speaking lashon hara, but we must also utilize our gift properly so that all our words will be spoken with consideration and sensitivity. … This is the deeper, hidden message of our parashah: We are not only commanded to refrain from slandering our fellow man with outright lashon hara, we are even obligated to cushion the impact our words make on another’s feelings when we related painful or unfavorable news.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe suggests that people with more open hearts tend to experience spiritual distress more physically. This may allow them to respond more quickly to “missing the mark,” if they are attuned to their bodies. On the other hand, we may also close our hearts to avoid discomfort. Being open to change and growth requires vulnerability, how do you manage your vulnerability?