Judaism: The Parsha That Makes My Skin Itch
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Parshat (Torahh reading) Tazria is mainly concerned with a spiritual/physical illness called “Tzaraat”. As well as the spiritual implications (being unable to attend Temple services until one is healed), Tzaraat is considered a social disease, requiring forms of quarantine, or isolation. The Metzora – one afflicted with Tzaraat – is required to live away from their family and community. Since it involves white skin colouring, people often have described it as “leprosy”, a virus which has some similar symptoms.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch speaks at length on this week's parsha to explain why Tzaraat is definitely NOT leprosy. Why does the Torahh need to dedicate chapters to this particular illness, as opposed to others? Furthermore, the Talmud indicates that Tzaraat is not relevant today, when we don't have a Temple. It is not entirely clear whether this means that the illness does not manifest in the absence of the Temple, or if we simply are not concerned enough now to check for it.
The previous readings deal heavily with the Korbanot – animal and vegetable offerings in the Temple. In the absence of the Temple, people struggle to understand the relevance of these rules, but in general don't question why these are in the Torah. Similarly, while people recognise that we are spared the money and effort of bringing animals, flour, wine and oil to the Temple, we also sometimes feel that we are missing something by not being able to perform the mitzvot of the Korbanot. When Tzaraat is brought in to the picture, not having the Temple doesn't seem so bad. A person is now freed from the trauma and embarrassment of being “outed” as a Metzora.
The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz – 1540-1619) tries to explain the true purpose of Tzaraat: (Vayikra 13:2) He states that there are many opinions as to the nature of Tzaraat, but that it is clearly related to the etymology of the word Metzora – relating to the body expelling something bad. He continues that the Rabbis of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 17:3) and the Talmud (Archin 16b) bring many different lists of reasons for what causes Tzaraat, and even though some of them are potentially unhealthy practices, most of them are unsavoury character traits. However, the Kli Yakar surmises that only three of these causes are clearly identified in the Tanach.
The most obvious one is Lashon Hara – evil speech. This is hinted in a number of places, most obviously by the verses which warn one to be careful of Tzaraat, and then immediately warn us to remember what happened to Miriam (who was afflicted with Tzaraat after speaking wrongly about her brother Moshe). The lesson is that when we respect people properly, we do not feel the need to say hurtful things, even if they are true.
The second cause is arrogance and ego, the feeling that others are beneath you. This is pointed out in the story of Naaman (the regular Haftorah, reading from the Prophets, for Parashat Tazria). He was a very successful, famous, non Jewish General in the Army of Aram. He sought out the Prophet Elisha to heal his “tzaraat”, and reacted rudely when Elisha suggested a simple remedy (dip in the river Jordan seven times). When his servants convince him to try, Naaman is miraculously cured, and seeks out Elisha to apologize. The understanding is that Naaman could not be cured of his physical illness, until he fixed his character flaws, and stopped looking down on others.
The third cause is stinginess and greed. This is connected with the Haftorah of the following week, Metzora, which tells the story of four Metzoraim, men afflicted with tzaraat, who are forced to live outside the city, away from everybody. War and siege cause a famine, and with no one willing to give them food from the city, they prepare to turn themselves over to the enemy in an act of desperation. They find that the enemy camp has been abandoned and is full of food and riches. After they sit to eat, they suddenly feel sorry for their Israeli brethren, and instead of hoarding all the food and treasure, go to the city to invite everybody to come and share in the spoils. In doing this they cured themselves of greed and jealousy, by seeing the greater need of others, above their own petty desires.
The Sfat Emet (the second Rebbe of Gur) describes how tzaraat is actually beneficial to the sufferer, as the end result is beneficial. The implications are that tzaraat serves a positive purpose, to help cure bad character traits and personality flaws. As such, we can see that just as it is more difficult to do Teshuva and get close to Hashem without the Temple, similarly, it is more difficult to refine our characteristics and personality without the laws of tzaraat.
The other aspect of this Shabbat – called Parshat Hachodesh (the Sabbath preceding the new month of Nissan), seems to simply be a call to redemption, in practice it is more than that. The Jews are commanded that in order to make it out of Egypt, they all have to eat a lamb. If someone is unable to afford a lamb, they should find a neighbour or a friend to pool their resources. Alternately, one can invite someone needy to come and eat with them. It is not enough to just share or give the food, rather we must actually eat together.
We see that the message of the combination of two readings, Parshat Tazria - Hachodesh is a social message, that in order to deserve redemption, and to merit living in the land of Israel, we have to see the importance of all of our fellow Jews, feel good about sharing our blessings with them, and then celebrate with them (rather than gossiping behind their backs). We don't have tzaraat today, nor do we have a Temple to make a lamb for Seder night, but we have the need to be respectful, social and proper in our behavior to one another.
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