Was Tzaraas (leprosy) a good thing or a bad thing? Was it a punishment or
could it have been a reward? For the most part we view Tzaraas as a
punishment. Granted, the Talmud states that Tzaraas on a building could
have been a good thing. The Talmud relates that the Canaanite population,
fearful of the Jewish invasion, hid their wealth in the walls and
foundations of their homes. By infecting the walls the building would be
demolished and the treasure discovered. However, for the most part, Tzaraas
was a form of punishment.
If we consider the amount of attention and detail given by the Torah to
this "affliction," we have to wonder why? Where the Jews of those earlier
generations so bad that Tzaraas was a constant in the norms of Jewish life?
Assuming that Tzaraas was a punishment for speaking Lashon Harah - slander,
it would seem from this week's Parsha that they were speaking a lot of
Lashon Harah! By contrast, the complex laws of how to properly slaughter an
animal are contained in a single Pasuk! (Divarim 12:22) Why does the Torah
spend so much time on this topic?
(As an aside, although the laws of Shechita are extremely important and
contemporary, the Torah specifically does not elaborate in order to
emphasize the importance of the Torah Sheb'al Peh the Oral Torah. The
brevity of the statement, "As I commanded you," demands that G-d had given
more than just the Written Torah. R.S.R.Hirsch)
Let us first take notice of the placement of these laws in Sefer Vayikra
(Leviticus). Vayikra and Tzav focused on the basic laws of Korbanos -
offerings. It makes sense that the first topic addressed in the book called
Torahs Kohanim - the way of the Kohanim (priests), should be the "how to"
Shimini dealt with the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the
priesthood and the dedication of the Mishkan - Tabernacle. That too makes
sense. After establishing how to communicate with G-d the Torah moved to
put it into affect. The Mishkan was built, the Kohanim were chosen and
trained, and the Mizbeach (altar) was burning to get started.
All of a sudden the Torah interjected the laws of Tzaraas. What it was, how
it was diagnosed, its various forms and occasions, and the place of the
Kohain in diagnosing the disease and prescribing the treatment protocol.
With everything in place to properly communicate with G-d, the laws, the
Kohanim, and the Mishkan, why did the Torah focus on Tzaraas? And why in
What should the Torah have presented instead? We are told that the Kohanim
were the designated teachers of the nation. They were the preeminent role
models of the integration of G-d into daily living. It was a special
mitzvah to appoint worthy Kohanim to the august body of the Sanhedrin
(Supreme Court). They were both the administrators of the Temple as well as
the protectors of G-d's word. It was into their care that G-d had entrusted
the holiest of all objects, the Luchos (Tablets). It would have made
perfect sense to go from the inauguration and dedication in Parshas Shimini
to the laws of Torah study and chinuch - education.
Maybe the Torah should have turned our attention to the vast body of social
laws recorded elsewhere in the Torah. The lessons of Vayikra were never
intended to be purely ceremonial and devotional. Their real value was in
the lessons to be learned and applied outside of the purified environment
of the Mishkan and Temple. They were practical directions in how to
integrate G-d into the personal and public arenas of life. Why not point
our attention in that direction rather than to the limited application of
I would like to suggest that the Torah spent the most time and detail on
those occasions where G-d's presence is most manifest. Being that G-d's
presence was most manifest in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple) and Mishkan;
therefore, the laws concerning Kohanim, Korbanos, purity and impurity and
the workings of the Bais Hamikdash must be presented in great detail. They
are by far the most extensive of all sets of laws presented in the Torah.
Social laws, such as Tzedaka, marriage, or education are by comparison far
less extensive. Please keep in mind that I refer to the presentation of
laws as they are recorded in the Torah itself. I am not comparing the
extensiveness of any of the laws elaborated upon in the Talmud.
Therefore, the extensive treatment of Tzaraas as presented in Tazria and
Metzora must mean that the laws of Tzaraas were a special occasion of G-d's
During the 40 years in the desert, the Bnai Yisroel were subject to an
intense revelation of G-d's constant power and control. They were subject
to the immediacy of G-d's judgment and its attendant reward and
punishment. At Kriyas Yam Suf (Splitting of the Sea), the Egyptians were
punished and the Jews were saved. In their first encounter with Amalek, the
Jews were miraculously victorious while Amalek was defeated. When the
various defections and rebellions took place in the desert, G-d's wrath was
swift and direct. At the same time, G-d sustained the Jews with water from
rocks, food from heaven, a glorious cloud cover to protect them from the
elements, and a pillar of fire to light the way. In many ways, this proved
to be the nation's greatest challenge. Would they be able to live under
such intense divine scrutiny? Would they display the strength and courage
of being a nation of free willed humans created in the image of G-d?
(Meaning, wherever they looked they would see G-d!)
One of the examples of G-d's intense, manifest presence in the desert was
the daily Maana. Every day G-d gave each person and family the exact amount
of food needed for that day. On Friday, G-d gave two times that amount
because Maana deliveries were suspended on Shabbos. We are told that a
person's own level of sanctity and righteousness determined the proximity
of the Maana to his or her home. The more righteous the person the closer
the Maana would fall, the less righteous the person the further they would
have to go to collect their daily ration of Maana.
Consider the social ramifications of this system. It meant that every day
every person was publicly judged. One day it was close and everyone
whispered about your righteousness. The next day it was further away and
you can imagine the Lashon Harah!
The manifestation of G-d in the giving of Maana was far more invasive than
the other public displays of power. Compare it to the cloud cover and the
water. Regardless of a persons righteousness, or lack there of, the clouds
protected one and all. The same was true for the water. To the best of my
knowledge I do not remember the Medresh ever describing hot and cold indoor
plumbing for the righteous and outdoor cold showers for the less righteous!
However, the proximity of the Maana was personal and private, yet publicly
revealed. It was among the clearest expression of G-d's overt involvement
in the private lives of the nation.
Tzaraas was an affliction that was unique to Eretz Yisroel. We are told
that if a similar condition would occur outside of Eretz Yisroel it would
be referred to a doctor, not the local Kohain. Only in Eretz Yisroel, the
holiest country on earth, the country where G-d's presence is felt "from
the beginning of the year to its end," did the laws of Tzaraas apply.
Tzaraas was intended to bring the individual and the nation back to G-d. It
was intended to motivate Teshuva (repentance). According to the Gemara,
Tzaraas was a punishment for Lashon Harrah. Slander is an anti-social and
destructive act. It insidiously harms its victim as well as all those
involved in the sharing of the slander. However, the aim of all punishments
is to rehabilitate. It is not to exact vengeance. Therefore, if it was
possible for the same aim to be accomplished without the trauma and public
shame (think maana) Tzaraas was not necessary.
We know that the Kohanim would not diagnose Tzaraas during the time of
Aliya L'regel - Pesach, Shevuoth, and Succos. The diagnosis would wait
until after the Yom Tov.
With Pesach a recent reality it behooves us to imagine what we missed out
on because Mashiach hasn't yet arrived. The power of the crowd is well
documented. Large multitudes of people gathering for any purpose, good or
bad, has a primal influence that moves individuals to do great good or
unfortunately great evil. The hundreds of thousands, if not millions of
Bnai Yisroel who traveled to Yerushalayim to be Oleh Regel (going to the
Temple on the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuoth, and Succos.) cannot be
described. The power of the moment cannot be calculated. It was the
greatest public display of devotion to G-d and His Torah imaginable. It was
the greatest Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d's name)).
What affect did such a scene have on a sinner waiting to be declared a
Metzora (leper)? Most of us can recall the power of the most recent world
wide Siyum Hashas (world wide completion of the study of the Talmud taking
seven years) or Birkas Kohanim (blessing of the priests). Multitudes of
Jews gathering for the glory of G-d and His Torah are occasions that propel
us to greater heights of commitment and devotion. They challenge our
assumed understanding of power and purpose and redirect, if only for the
moment, our minds and hearts. That was the experience of Aliya L'regel that
enveloped and embraced the potential Metzora.
The Kohanim would not diagnose Tzaraas during the Yomim Tovim because they
hoped that the experience of the holiday would motivate the sinner,
especially the slanderer, to repent and avoid being declared a Metzora.
Tzaraas was a public display of G-d's presence. When the Jews merited such
an overt display of G-d's displeasure, Tzaraas applied. When the Jews
became distant from G-d and were exiled from their land, Tzaraas ended.
Therefore, in this way Tzaraas was more positive than negative. G-d's
presence is manifest in how He rewards and equally manifest in how He
punishes. The key is to recognize G-d's power in all its manifestations.
The daily events here and in Israel should be constant reminders that this
truly is G-d's world. He suffers our presence and rewards or punishes
accordingly. We just borrow time for the chance at glimpsing the Creator.
As funny as it sounds, may we once again be worthy of G-d's manifest
presence, even if it means Tzaraas.