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Tzara'at and Selfishness

Parshat Metzora deals with a peculiar condition called tzaraat that afflicts skin, surfaces of walls and clothing. This condition has long been erroneously translated into English as leprosy. However, tzaraat is not Hansen's Disease, the clinical name for leprosy. Rabbi Hirsch in his Torah commentary demonstrates at length why it is not. For starters the symptoms are not at all similar. Moreover, the rules associated with tzaraat do not make sense if the disease is contagious. For example, a person who is entirely covered with the malady is not considered tamei (ritually unclean), though one who is only partially covered is ritually unclean. If the walls of a house show tzaraat then all of the contents of the home are put outside! (14:26) This is not the way to halt the spread of a contagious illness people are afraid of contracting. Since it is clear that people were not afraid of "catching" tzaraat then what kind of affliction was it and why did it occupy such an important role in the spiritual/ritual life of the ancient Israelites? More importantly, what meaning or relevance does a study of tzaraat hold for us today?

The cause of tzaraat is implied by its very name. A person who has tzaraat is called a Metzora. According to rabbinic tradition this word is a contraction of the Hebrew words motzi and rah, which loosely means "one who spreads slander". Thus, a person becomes afflicted with tzaraat as a punishment for spreading slander. Another midrash from the Talmud suggests that tzaraat is a punishment for selfishness (BT, Arachin 16a). The haftorah offers a story on this latter cause of tzaraat and a possible reason why the "treatment" for it is isolation from the community.

In the haftorah, four men afflicted with tzaraat are contemplating their future. Inferring that they have nothing to loose they decide to dessert to the enemy army of Aram. As they approach the Aramean camp they observe that it is completely abandoned. There first reaction is to begin stealing all of the silver, gold and other items of value. But then one of the four points out, "we are not acting properly -today is a day of good news, yet we remain silent! If we wait until the dawn we will be judged as sinners. Now come, let us go and report to the king's palace". (7:9)

Tradition suggest that this as a parable about selfishness versus selflessness. The four men are afflicted with tzaraat because of the sins of some unstated previous acts of selfishness. The punishment is that they are then isolated from the rest of the community. The "treatment" that brings about a change within the four men is the very same thing as the punishment, namely, isolation from the community. The experience of being removed and separated from the community motivates the men to cease from acting selfishly and begin to put the needs of the community ahead of their own. As a result of their "rehabilitation" the four men are redeemed, the enemy is scattered and the city of Samaria is saved from attack. The moral, so to speak, of this parable is that selfishness leads to a kind of isolation, while acts of sharing and generosity cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion.

The haftorah helps us to better understand that the main subject of the Torah portion, namely tzaraat, is not literally about skin afflictions but rather it is about social and spiritual maladies that threaten the wholeness or integrity of the community. The lesson of this haftorah is just as true today: selfishness leads to isolation, while acts of sharing and generosity cultivate a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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