This week, we delve into two parahshot that are mostly famous for their dealings with the condition known as “leprosy.” The Torah describes a very specific protocol for how to identify, treat, quarantine, and eventually purify someone who has been afflicted with “tzaraat.” Leviticus chapter 13, verse 2 says, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.” There is certainly a great deal to unpack regarding the attention given to “tzaraat” in the Torah, and how we, as moderns, can consume and digest this ancient information in a meaningful way.
When reading through the Torah’s chapters on “tzaraat,” one could take all of the information and prescriptions quite literally. A person afflicted with “tzaraat” was considered physically impure and was thus barred from entering the Sanctuary. In fact, someone who was affected was largely considered dead to the people of Israel until they were deemed to be cured. Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan even once said that a person should be forbidden to walk four cubits to the east of a leper. Rabbi Yohanan’s colleague Rabbi Simeon, not to be outdone, said that one should not walk even one hundred cubits east of a leper. It turns out that both were in agreement, but Rabbi Yohanan was referring to a time when the wind was not blowing. It seems that the Torah and the scholars of the Talmud were in agreement that something was quite amiss when “tzaraat” had been inflicted upon an individual.
There are some issues to explore before we move any further. What was once called leprosy is a diagnosable medical condition called Hansen’s Disease, and it is actually quite difficult to transfer from one person to another. The CDC makes it clear that Hansen’s Disease transmission from person-to-person requires prolonged exposure to an infected person over many months, and many of the signs and symptoms are not quite consistent with what is described in the Torah. The word “tzaraat” that is so often translated to mean “leprosy,” is a questionable translation that likely has its roots in the Septuagint, or “Greek Old Testament.” When being translated into Greek, ‘tzaraat” was replaced with the Greek word for “scaly,” which is “lepra.” Talk about an affliction that was likely lost in translation.
So, what to make of “tzaraat” in the Torah? I am inclined to agree with 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh. According to Rabbi Hirsh, the scripture only mentions treatment of “tzaraat” by kohanim, or priests, and no medical experts or healers are mentioned at all. So…
Perhaps “tzaraat” should be examined as a physical manifestation of a malady of the soul.
According to the tradition of the Rabbis, a person who has been infected with “tzaraat” is known as a “metzora.” This word, “metzora,” is a Hebrew contraction of the words “motzi” and “ra,” and translates to “a person who spreads slander.” Hertz’s commentary mentions how the Rabbis actually referred to “tzaraat” as a punishment for tale bearing or slander. Essentially, a person who talks about others, spreads falsehoods, and does damage by lying and deceiving, should be removed from the people of Israel. When we are talking about ailments of the soul and spirit, kohanim, or priests, being the primary caretakers begins to make sense. “When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest” (Lev. 13:9). Notice how the plague is in a man, and not on a man. Interesting wording for a skin disease, no?
We do damage to ourselves and others when we act as a “metzora.” The Torah talks of raw flesh rising, boils, and white spots of infection. Physical manifestations of what our soul might go through when we slander others, or act selfishly. We all know people who we deem to be “toxic.” we can have toxic friends, toxic family members, and toxic co-workers. Intimate relationships, and even marriages can become what we refer to as toxic. Do we imply that the relationship is literally poisonous? Of course not. When we are involved in toxic situations or with toxic people, it leaves us feeling drained, stressed, anxious, and even sick. People who act in a toxic way tend to bring those around them down as well, and the contagiousness of their toxic behavior can sometimes only be avoided by creating distance. Sometimes we must quarantine ourselves emotionally and spiritually from the toxic person or situation. This is not a COVID-19 type of quarantine, but one of the soul. As Jews, we make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Our communities are often small, and it is easy for a toxicity of behavior to disrupt the well-being of an entire community. The Torah makes it clear that the plague can infect ourselves, our homes, even our garments. No area of our life is untouched by one who acts with toxic intentions. “This is the law of the plague of leprosy…” (Lev. 13:59). “The law,” referring to the prescription of how to remove “uncleanliness” from the people of Israel.
It is important that we look at not only who we choose to surround ourselves with, what relationships to nurture, and what situations to attend to–but also that we look inward and reflect upon our own behaviors. How can we lift people up instead of putting them down? Are there any toxic behaviors or tendencies that we can work on rectifying? Is my soul bogged down with “tzaraat?” The next time we act, perhaps we should envision that the intentions of our actions will manifest themselves on our skin. What kind of beauty or boil would my actions create on my outer-self? If our answer does not satisfy, perhaps it is time to isolate and destroy the toxic “tzaraat” in our souls. And then, “…after that may [we] come into the camp” (Lev. 14:8) and rejoin our people, who need us to have a clear mind with good intentions.
May we all be blessed to “clean” up our own toxicity, and to remove the “tzaraat” from our daily lives. We, as Jews, must always be looking to improve and lift up the world and those who inhabit it.