These two parashot, yesterday's Torah reading, are probably among our least favorites, not only because they deal with an apparently loathsome skin disease, but also because its theme, the exclusion of those who suffer from the disease, also offends our sensibilities.
It should be clear, however, that, despite the conventional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy,” the condition of tzara’at has little, if anything, to do with Hansen’s disease. As Rabbi Bernard Bamberger notes, commentators have suggested a wide variety of diseases, some of them minor, to which it might refer, and it is possible that any or all of them might fall into this classification.
More to the point, it should be apparent that the procedure described here has nothing to do with medical diagnosis or treatment. As Bamberger also notes, no similar procedure involving diagnosis by a priest and quarantine is required for other, possibly more serious or more contagious, diseases. That tzara’at may also afflict fabrics or (in Metzora) houses also suggests that it is something other than an ordinary disease process.
Furthermore, the priest’s role, in Tazria, is limited to the examination of the sufferer; the priest has no further role until the sufferer recovers.
Rather, tzara’at is understood as the physical representation of God’s disfavor--that is, as the outward sign of an inward, spiritual malaise. In modern terms, we might also understand it as the external manifestation of a psychological condition; Dr. A. J. Twerski goes so far as to liken it to a condition of which the sufferer is in denial, and refers to the community’s obligation to overcome the denial in order to help him or her.
Jewish tradition particularly associates tzara’at with the sin of lashon hara--evil speech, slander, or gossip. Although this association can be drawn from a word play on the name of the second parashah, Metzora (they are joined in most years), a stronger case for the association can be drawn from Numbers 12, where Miriam is stricken with tzara’at after she and Aaron speak ill of Moses. But nothing in this parashah supports a strong association between tzara’at and lashon hara or any other specific sin.
This focus on outward disfigurement as the expression of an inner spiritual defect, and the exclusion of the sufferer from the community because of it, strike many of us today as objectionable. These objections, however, reflect a double misreading of the text.
The first misreading derives from focusing on the sufferer’s presumed spiritual defect. It appealed to the rabbis to associate tzara’at with a specific sin, lashon hara, not merely because the idea of divine punishment for sinful acts is part of Jewish tradition, but also because the cause-and-effect relationship between the action and the punishment suggests a possibility of atonement. In Judaism, unlike, for example, Calvinism, misfortune is not seen as a sign of being permanently out of God’s favor; the inherent personal worth of every Jew is taken for granted.
Thus, it makes sense to interpret these parashot in light of those immediately preceding it, in which the discussion first of the sacrifices and then of kashrut has the holiness of the people Israel as an underlying theme. Perhaps we should give more attention to holiness or purity than to impurity.
The second misreading stems from focusing on the exclusion of the sufferer. The text here strongly suggests that many people could be expected to recover from tzara’at within seven days, or fourteen, and the second parashah, Metzora, provides a ritual of purification that allows one who has recovered from tzara’at to return to the community. Thus, this parashah could also be seen as part of a logical unit that concludes two parashot hence, in Achare Mot, with the instructions regarding Yom Kippur.
A moral like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” cannot be readily drawn from this parashah; it is a basic assumption here that the affliction, whatever its direct cause, reflects genuine impurity. There are, however, several other lessons that we can draw.
The first is that we need not regard every affliction as a sign of God’s disfavor. In this parashah, those who might be suffering from tzara’at do not diagnose it themselves; examination by the priest is required, and many similar conditions are carefully excluded from the diagnosis. Although it is still tempting for many with severe or chronic illness to view themselves as “cursed by God,” nothing in this parashah supports such an attitude.
The second is that the state of alienation from God and the community is a temporary condition, one that derives from specific acts rather than from a generalized state of unworthiness. Despite the degree of horror that attaches to tzara’at, it is a condition from which a sufferer can hope to recover and return to the community.
The third is a challenge: in the modern age, when tzara’at itself concerns most of us hardly at all, this parashah asks us what conditions today cause us to exclude others needlessly from our communities, or cause others to exclude themselves. And it asks us what means we might find to reincorporate them as effectively as the purification ritual reincorporated the tzara’at sufferer into the people of Israel. In the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy we explicitly authorize ourselves to pray with sinners; otherwise how could we pray at all?