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Judaism: Metzora: Leprosy and Israel

Published: Thursday, April 03, 2014 7:12 AM


The Torah began speaking about tzara’at (usually, though inaccurately, rendered as “leprosy”) back in Parashat Tazria (13:1), and this somewhat unappetizing subject will continue until the end of Chapter 14 – about two-thirds of Parshat (Torah reading) Metzora – after which the Torah will continue with male and female bodily discharges and their aftermaths.

After dealing with the tzara’at-affliction of human bodies, the Torah continues by speaking about the tzara’at-affliction of houses: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron saying: When you come to the Land of Canaan, which I give you as a holding, and I will give a tzara’at-affliction in a house of the Land of your holding, then he whose house it is will come and tell the Kohen [Priest] saying: Something akin to an affliction has appeared to me in the house” (Leviticus 14:33-35).

Coming in the midst of the subject of tzara’at-affliction – and the equally unappetizing subjects that the Torah deals with in somewhat gruesome detail both before and after – the phrase “when you come to the Land of Canaan…” seems out of place.

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) explains: “The implication of ‘when you come to the Land of Canaan’ is that this applies solely in the Land, because of the great elevatedness of the Land, because there the Holy Temple is in their midst, and [G-d’s] glory is in the midst of the Holy Temple”. Like so much of what the Ibn Ezra writes, this comment is like a flash of lightning: brief, burning in its intensity, and so dazzling in its brilliance as to illuminate an entire landscape.

Clearly, the affliction of tzara’at affects people and houses solely within the Land of Israel. So here, we have a simple way of avoiding this most hideous of afflictions: stay outside of Israel. Remain in the desert, remain in Egypt (or America, or France, or England, or wherever), and you will never have to face this disgusting disfigurement.

This does not seem to be a particularly good marketing ploy for Aliyah: “Come to Israel – and experience bodily disfigurements, pus, sores, and boils! Only in the Holy Land can you undergo the novelty of G-d turning your house, your garments, and your body weird colours if you disobey certain Mitzvot!”

I venture to suggest that any advertising executive would strongly advise Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency that this is poor salesmanship. Was this really the best timing for telling the Jews what awaited them in Israel?

I suggest the following explanation: the phrase el eretz K’na’an (“to the land of Canaan”) occurs only twice in the entire Torah – here, and in the verse “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you pass over the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the Land before you, and eliminate all their figured stones, and all their molten images shall you eliminate, and all their idolatrous altars shall you demolish” (Numbers 33:50-52).

This, too, seems to be a somewhat discouraging message: after forty years of wandering through the desert, the Jews surely wanted to enter the Land of Israel peacefully, to rest at last, to start building for their future. But G-d instructs Moshe to warn them that immediately upon entering their Land, they would have to wage war.

Is this really the best message to give? Come home to Israel – and there, instead of living in tranquillity as you do in the desert, with no enemies around you, you will have to fight for your lives and for your homes, you can have the privilege of having friends and family – perhaps yourself! – killed in battle. Is this really the sort of message that is designed to promote Aliyah?

The answer is a resounding Yes! The very words “to the land of Canaan” should evoke in every Jew such a yearning, that he will long even for these tribulations. “G-d gave the Jews three wonderful gifts, but all can be acquired only through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come” (Brachot 5a, Shmot Rabbah 1:1, and Tanhuma, Shmot 1), and undergoing the suffering to earn any of these gifts is not merely a worthwhile price to pay, but an honour to undergo.

Basic training may not be everyone’s idea of fun – but it is an honour to have undergone that gruelling mission for the sake of the Land of Israel. The affliction of tzara’at may be unappealing, but better to suffer this affliction in Israel than to be bodily healthy anywhere else. True, you can avoid it completely by remaining in the desert, in exile – but then, neither will you experience the sanctity and glory of Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, which can exist solely in the Land of Israel.

Indeed, other midrashim give an added dimension to the three divine gifts: “G-d gave the Jews three wonderful gifts, and the nations of the world lust after them, and all can be acquired only through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro 10; Sifrei, Deuteronomy 32; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 303).

Over and over again in the two parashot Tazria and Metzora, the Torah decrees that only a Kohen is authorised to pronounce whether or not a disfigurement constitutes tzara’at. As the Rambam expresses it in the Mishneh Torah, “Even though all are qualified to see the afflictions, ritual impurity and purity depend upon the Kohen.

How does this work? – If a Kohen does not know how to see [and identify the signs], then a Sage looks and tells him: ‘Say it is impure!’, and the Kohen says, ‘Impure!’. [The Sage says], ‘Say it is pure!’, and the Kohen says, ‘Pure!’. [The Sage says], ‘Isolate him!’, and he isolates him, as it says ‘according to their [the Kohanim’s] word shall be every controversy and every affliction’ (Deuteronomy 21:5)” (Laws of Tzara’at-Affliction 9:2).

The Midrash relates that “a certain Kohen who would see the tzara’at-afflictions became impoverished, so he decided to leave Israel. He called his wife and said to her: Because people have become accustomed to come to me for me to see their tzara’at-afflictions, it is difficult for me to leave them. So come, and I will teach you so that you will be able to discern the signs of the tzara’at-afflictions: if you see that the well-springs of a person’s hair have dried up then you will know that he is affected, because G-d has created a separate well-spring [in medical terms, a follicle] for every single hair to drink from. If the well-spring dries up, then the hair dries up." 

"His wife said to him: Well, if G-d has created a separate well-spring for every single hair to drink from, then you, who are a human – how many hairs do you have?! And your children rely upon you for their sustenance! Will G-d not all the more so ensure your income?! And so she did not allow him to leave Israel” (Tanhuma, Tazria 6).

This Kohen’s wife understood – and taught her husband – that we can learn G-d’s love and protection for us even from the laws of tzara’at and the signs of its afflictions.

The Land of Israel is such a wonderful gift that every Jew should be willing to live here, even knowing that here he will be punished for his sins in a way that cannot happen anywhere else. Because here, every Jew will also receive rewards that he cannot even conceive of anywhere else; and here, and nowhere else, every Jew can bask in the holiness of the Shekhinah.

Dedicated to the memory of Barry Hoffmann z”l, who passed away last Friday, 26th Adar II (28th March). Yehi zichro baruch.