Leviticus 14:1-15:33; 2 kings 7:3-20; Matthew 23:16-24:2 by Rabbi Jason Palmer
In last week’s parasha, Tazria, we find the Torah’s regulations regarding the person who is inflicted with the disease tzara’at, a mysterious condition, which manifested itself as a rash upon the skin of the infected. While many English language editions of the Bible follow the ancient Septuagint by translatingtzara’at as “leprosy”, it is clear from the Torah’s description that the affliction has different characteristics than Hansen’s disease (our modern term for leprosy). Nevertheless, by contracting this ailment, the afflicted person was considered ritually contaminated, a condition that caused one to become temporarily exiled from the Mishkan and the community. In summary, Parashat Tazria instructs the Levites in identifying the symptoms of tzara’at and provides laws concerning the handling of those who have become ritually impure as a result of their illness.
Within this week’s portion, the Torah provided additional laws regarding the metzora, the person afflicted with tzara’at. In sum, when one’s symptoms of tzara’at subsided, he or she would undergo a priestly examination and follow a three-step process of ritual purification and spiritual restoration. Following these events, a physically healthy, ritually purified and spiritually restored individual would be permitted to fully return to the community.
Parashat Metzora makes it clear that the person suffering with tzara’at was unwelcome to live within the boundaries of Israel. However, why did our benevolent God, Whose attribute of Justice is balanced by His attribute of Lovingkindness, require Aaron and his priestly sons to expel the infirm from His community? Does God, Who routinely demonstrated His desire for intimacy with those created in His image, demand “physical perfection” from those for whom it is clearly impossible?
According to notable clues within the Torah, as well as the witness of Jewish tradition, it is apparent that the Children of Israel experienced a considerable miracle following the events in Egypt. Before they received the Torah on Sinai, the Israelites were miraculously cured from every illness and injury that had been inflicted upon them during their harsh enslavement in Egypt. Within Numbers Rabbah, we find these words attributed to Rabbi Tanhuma:
When Israel came out of Egypt the vast majority of [the Israelites] were afflicted with some [kind of] blemish. Why? Because they had been working in clay and bricks and climbing to the tops of buildings [and sustained many injuries]. Those who were engaged in building became maimed through climbing to the top of the layers of stone; either a stone fell and cut off the worker’s hand, or a beam or some clay got into his eyes and he was blinded… What, then, did God do? He [instructed] the angels [to] come down to Israel and heal [the people].
Likewise, Rabbi Judah follows with a scriptural basis:
[How] do we know that there were none [that were] lame among [the Children of Israel]? For it says, in Exodus 19:17, ‘And they stood at the bottom of the mountain’, and ‘stood’ can only mean, upon one’s feet. [How do we know] that there were none with broken arms among [the Children of Israel]? For it says, in Exodus 19:8, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ [How do we know] that there were none [that were] deaf among [the Children of Israel]? For it says, in Exodus 24:7, ‘And we will hear.’ [How do we know] that there were none [that were] blind among [the Children of Israel]? For it says, in Exodus 20:18, ‘And all the people saw the thunderings.’ [How do we know] that there were none [who were unable to speak] among [the Children of Israel]? For it says, in Exodus 19:8, ‘And all the people answered.’ [Thus,] you are led to conclude [From the Torah] that [the children of Israel] were [entirely] healed.
God had miraculously healed the Israelites as a component of their redemption from Egypt. (Likewise, Yeshua’s message of redemption accompanied miraculous healings.) Humanity is restored; Israel was walking with the Creator of all. God had reestablished a type of divine-human intimacy that the universe had not experienced since the Garden of Eden. However, according to the Torah, it is clear that many within Israel had eventually become ill by the time of the inauguration of the Tabernacle service. Thus, we must ask why illnesses such as tzara’at and other types of ritual defilement returned among God’s people. Tragically, the era of the people’s restoration came to an end with that infamous event that occurred roughly forty days following the bestowal of the Torah on Sinai, the idolatrous and licentious episode of the molten calf (Exodus 32).
Midrash Numbers Rabbah states: “[When the children of Israel] committed that crime of calf-worship, their blemishes [from Egypt] returned to them and they became afflicted … with leprosy [tzara’at]”.
The establishment of the Mishkan among the people, the place where God would dwell, required regulations concerning the ritually impure throughout the community. Targum Onkelos, expanding upon Numbers 5:3, states: “You shall send them away, that they defile not their camps; for My Shekinah (presence) dwells among you.” Numbers Rabbah concludes:
God said to Moses: ‘When [Israel] had not yet made the Tabernacle, I had contact with you merely through speech, and those afflicted with … leprosy mingled [among] you, but now that you have made the Tabernacle and I am causing my Presence to dwell among you, you must separate them from yourselves; “[Send away] out of the camp every leper… that they do not defile their camp, in the midst where I dwell.”
Throughout the writings of Jewish tradition, tzara’at receives a lot of attention. The Torah’s rules concerning the disease are at times mysterious. Clearly, they were not articulated in order to resist contagion or for medicinal purposes. For example, Rashi notes that during a festival celebration individuals were exempt from facing the priestly examination concerning possible cases of tzara’at. Also, as Rabbi Hirsch explains, when a priest receives a person with a questionable case, and his diagnosis is inconclusive, he is to rule that the afflicted person is “ritually pure”. Incredibly, Leviticus 13:13 stipulates that a person is considered “clean” when his or her symptoms envelop the entire body.
When one considers the disastrous results of the sin of the molten calf, which resulted in the return of Israel’s infirmities from Egypt, as well other incidents within the Bible in which one became leprous, in addition to the mysterious characteristics concerning the Torah’s instructions regarding tzara’at, it becomes evident that the affliction is not an ordinary type of disease. The sages explain that tzara’at was an outward manifestation of a person’s defective spiritual attitudes and a temporary punishment inflicted by God.
Throughout the texts of Jewish tradition, as well as the Torah, tzara’at is a divine punishment for faulty behavior. Famously, it is a common view with our tradition that tzara’at was a penalty for sins of speech (Lashon Hara), such as gossip and slander. However, some noted that tzara’at could be caused by additional kinds of negative behavior, as in Numbers Rabbah:
Rabbi Judah the Levite inferred that leprosy [tzara’at] comes because of eleven sins: for cursing the Divine Name, for immorality, for bloodshed, for ascribing to another a fault that is not in him, for haughtiness, for encroaching upon other’s domains, for a lying tongue, for theft, for swearing falsely, for profanation of the name of Heaven, and for idolatry.