Parashat Tazria-Metzora: A blessing in disguise

Tzara’at causes suffering but is also potentially a blessing in disguise – as long as the leper relates to it appropriately. And with all the suffering this plague is inflicting upon us all – we can yet make it a time of global healing.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Detail of Tik (Torah case) and Glass Panel from Baghdad, 19th-20th centuries, part of the Iraqi Jewi
Detail of Tik (Torah case) and Glass Panel from Baghdad, 19th-20th centuries, part of the Iraqi Jewi

These two parashot are invariably read together in non-leap years (as this year 5780 is), and are invariably read separately in leap years.

The main topic of Parashot Tazria and Metzora is צָרַעַת, tzara’at, often inaccurately translated as “leprosy”. Some of the physical symptoms of tzara’at resemble those of leprosy, but that’s where the similarity ends: leprosy is a physical ailment, tzara’at is the physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment.

So although צָרָעַת doesn’t really mean “leprosy”, and מְצֹרָע doesn’t really mean “leper”, it is sometimes convenient to use this (mis)-translations purely for smoothly-flowing English syntax.

The Torah deals first with tzara’at which afflicts the person’s body and how he recovers from it (Leviticus 13:1-14:32), and then with tzara’at which afflicts the person’s house (Leviticus 14:33-57).

Both cases are deeply unpleasant: either the leper’s body or his house is afflicted with very unappetising disfigurements, and the process for purification is both unsettling and humiliating.

Yet there is a reason for tzara’at:

Let us begin by recognising that tzara’at can happen solely in the Land of Israel. This already tells us that it can afflict us solely when we are on a higher spiritual level, the level with which only the Land of Israel can infuse us.

Tzara’at of the body comes as a punishment for sin – primarily the sin of slander. The Talmud (Arachin 15b, Yerushalmi Sotah 17:1) and the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 16:1 and Tanhuma, Metzora 1) explain the word מְצֹרָע to be a contraction of מוֹצִיא שֵׁם רָע, “slander”.

Tzara’at, however, can also constitute a Divine punishment for other sins.

By feeling the pain that the sinner has inflicted on others, by suffering the humiliation, he can be brought to repentance, his sins are forgiven, and he is cleansed.

Ultimately, the tzara’at of his body is potentially for his own spiritual benefit – but only if he absorbs and internalises the lessons of his affliction.

If the tzara’at to which he is subjected, and the painful and humiliating process of cleansing, simply embitter him, estrange him from his family and friends, and indeed from society as a whole, if he retains the same arrogance which caused him to commit those sins in the first place – then of course he has gained no benefit whatsoever, all his suffering has brought him no benefit.

As for tzara’at of the house – the Talmud (Horayot 10a) and the Midrash (Sifra, Metzora 5 and Vayikra Rabbah 17:6) record that when the Canaanites heard that the Israelites were approaching the Land of Israel, they concealed their wealth in the walls of their houses to deprive the Jews of it.

Now Moshe promised us that G-d would give us “great and good cities which you did not build, and houses filled with everything good which you did not fill” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11).

When a house afflicted by tzara’at would be dismantled, the owner would then discover the concealed treasures.

Hence the tzara’at of his house is for his own material benefit – again, if he appreciates the reason and the benefit it has brought him.

Again, discovering such treasured in his house could simply make him greedy, instead of grateful to G-d for His bountifulness.

In both cases, tzara’at is potentially a blessing in disguise – as long as the leper relates to it appropriately.

The entire world is currently suffering from the terrible plague of coronavirus: from the humblest individuals to the most powerful nations, everyone is threatened.

No one is immune. From the humblest peasants to the world’s most powerful kings, prime ministers, and presidents; from prisoners to national leaders; from poorest to wealthiest – this virus doesn’t discriminate, all are susceptible.

Doctors, virologists, epidemiologists, pharmaceutical engineers, and others, throughout the world, are desperately working to beat this disease, to discover a cure or a vaccine – ideally both.

This plague will most likely have a lasting effect on human society. And it is for us to determine if we will emerge from this better or worse.

This corona plague might well humble countless health professionals the world over: with all the technology that an unsurpassed generation has created, a microscopic virus has (so far) defeated the best efforts of humanity’s greatest brains.

It might also humble the arrogant national leaders, both of wealthy and powerful democracies and the infinitely more arrogant tyrants who rule over the world’s darkest régimes: after all, they begin to discover that they, too, are just as vulnerable to disease as the subjects for whom they hold such contempt.

It might bring humanity closer to each other: after we are all suffering this plague and its consequences together, we will all emerge from it one day together.

Indisputably some people will emerge embittered and estranged from society. Others will emerge with a vastly-strengthened sense of mutual responsibility and shared humanity.

Absent any cure or vaccination, the coronavirus can currently be combatted in one way only: quarantine, isolation – precisely the process of healing from tzara’at.

And like tzara’at, the coronavirus can potentially ultimately bring untold benefit to humanity.

The choice is in our hands – all of ours, the world over.

With all the suffering and devastation that this plague has inflicted upon us all – still is inflicting upon us all – we, every single individual alive on the face of this planet, can yet make it a time of global healing.