Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Getting Beneath the Skin
The laws of the Metzora, the subject of this week's parsha, are many
and complex. One of the types of tzaraas inflictions appears as a
white patch on the afflicted person's skin. This patch has to be a
minimum size (no smaller than a gris - bean), as well as a certain
degree of whiteness (at least as white as the membrane of an egg).
The white patch has to have the appearance of being "deeper than
the skin." All of the above conditions were essential in order to qualify
the affliction as tzaraas.
Even then, though, the sufferer can not be qualified as a metzora
until at least one of the following additional three conditions are met:
1) Two white hairs have sprouted from the white patch. 2) A healthy
patch of skin appears within the afflicted area. 3) The affliction is
witnessed to be growing.
So, if, G-d forbid, one woke up one morning with a gris-sized egg-
white coloured patch of skin, deeper in appearance than his own,
which also contained either white hairs, healthy skin, or was growing,
he was declared by the Kohen/Priest to be tamei - ritually impure, and
remained so until such a time as his affliction no longer contained
the afformentioned qualities.
With regard to the white patch appearing "deeper than the afflicted's
own skin," there seems to be disagreement among the mefarshim
(commentators). Rashi (13:3) understands that this is a natural
phenomenon - i.e. a white patch by definition will always appear
deeper than the darker skin surrounding it. Rashi is therefore at a
loss to explain how the Torah can later state (13:4), "If a white patch
(called a "baheres" - one of the impure colours) appears on his skin,
and its appearance is not deeper than the skin, and its hair has not
changed to white..." when, by definition, white always appears
deeper! Ramban (ibid.) deals with this question by explaining that
since, in this instance, white hairs have not appeared within the
afflicted area - but rather the hair within the affliction has remained
dark - the beholder's eye is naturally attracted to the dark hairs within
the affliction, and he therefore can not perceive the deepness of the
white, although it is certainly there.
Rambam (Tum'as Tzaraas 1:6) however, disagrees. It is possible, he
maintains, that a white patch may appear as a surface affliction, or it
may appear to be from beneath the surface. The Torah stipulates, he
explains, that the tzaraas affliction must appear to be beneath the
surface of the skin. If, however, it seems to be level with, or resting
above the skin (as did the liquid paper my students decorated
themselves with as a "case study" of tzaraas this week) then this is
not a tzaraas affliction, and he is tahor - pure.
Having explained this, why is it that the Torah is so adamant that the
tzaraas appears "deeper than the skin," whether we see this as a
natural phenomenon (Rashi, Ramban), or as a requirement of the
tzaraas (Rambam)? It is important to remember that according to
Chazal, our Sages, tzaraas is not a physical illness, but rather the
physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. In particular, tzaraas is
seen as a result of lashon ha-ra, one who gossips about or slanders
We all know ba'alei lashon ha-ra - individuals who somehow have a
knack at seeing the bad in others, and are fairly good at publicizing
it. Perhaps, at times, we even find ourselves falling into the trap of
gossiping about others. Consider, for a moment, the following
question: What is, in your view, is the distinguishing and defining
characteristic of the ba'al lashon ha-ra? The one quality that all
ba'alei lashon ha-ra seem unfailingly to have. Are they rich? Or poor?
Are they healthy? Ill? Smart? Dumb? It seems to me that the one trait
all gossipers have is negativity - they are unhappy with themselves.
When a person has the need to denigrate others, it is almost certainly
symptomatic of the fact that he has, to some degree, a negative self-
image. Instead, however, of acknowledging his own shortcomings, he
prefers to project his own faults onto those around him. He deals with
the bad within by searching for bad without.
Think for a moment: Do we fall into the trap of lashon ha-ra when
we're feeling great about life? Have you ever seen a chassan or
kallah (bride or groom) sitting at their own simcha, gossiping about
the guests? They're on top of the world - they have no need to look
for the bad in others!
The worse we feel, the more likely we are to fall into the trap of
lashon ha-ra. Conversely, the happier and more satisfied we are with
our own lives, the easier it becomes to find the good in others, and
overlook the bad.
David Ha-Melech says in Tehillim (Psalms 34:13-14), "Who is the
man who desires life, who loves days - seeing good? Guard your
tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit." One who
"desires life," who "loves his days" - can not help but to "see good" in
others (Mefarshim). He feels great, and he projects his own good
feelings onto those around him. For such a person, it is easy to,
"Guard your tongue from evil..." Perhaps, then, this is why the Torah
stresses that the tzaraas affliction is "deeper than the skin." One who
finds himself afflicted with tzaraas - the ba'al lashon ha-ra - can not
be healed from his ailment until he realizes that the bad he so readily
finds in others is actually coming from within.
Healing, then, involves two processes: 1) Focusing on the good in
one's own life, and not the bad ("Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied
with one's lot!"). 2) Doing the right thing. The more we do what's
right, the better we feel about ourselves, and the less we feel the need
to look for the bad somewhere else. Indeed, in its description of the
healing metzora, the Torah says (at the beginning of next week's
parsha, which is in essence a continuation of this week's - 14:3), "And
the Kohen shall exit the camp (to where the metzora dwells), and the
Kohen shall look, and behold! - the tzaraas affliction has been
healed from the metzora!" Aren't the final words of the verse - "from
the metzora" - redundant? Of course the tzaraas healed from the
metzora - it certainly wasn't the Kohen who was ailing! What the
Torah is stressing, mefarshim explain, is that healing can only be
from the metzora himself. The tzaraas will heal when the metzora -
who continually finds bad in others - recognizes that his negativity
comes from within.
Great people, it is said, speak about ideas. Average people speak
about things. And little people speak about others. The next time we
feel the urge to speak negatively about others - the next time we find
someone getting "under our skin" - perhaps we should try reminding
ourselves that this need is just a sign of our own littleness. Pick up a
sefer and learn a dvar-Torah. Do a mitzvah or a chessed. You'll feel
so great that you'll likely find you no longer have the need to nitpick
about others' faults!
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.