Rabbi Shelton Donnell & Esther Edelsburg
Congregation Kol Heneshama, Jerusalem
Our Torah portion for this week deals with matters that might seem to us to be of interest primarily to doctors, particularly dermatologists! “ADONAI spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests” (Lev. 13:1-2). Most of the thirteenth chapter of Leviticus centers on this topic of a person with a suspicious lesion on the skin who is brought before the priest to determine whether or not the wound shows signs of leprosy or not. “On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself before the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is tzara’at–leprosy” (Lev. 13:6-8). It should be noted that according to the biblical description (as interpreted) the disease described in the Torah is not identified with the affliction known today as Hansen’s Disease the characteristics of which differ from those described in the text. As a result, it is not precisely known what disease is to be identified with the biblical tzara’at detailed in our portion.
Let us now take a look at three commentaries from various periods each of which endeavored to understand the laws of the tzara’at and the corollary rules of tohorah (ritual purity) and tumah (ritual impurity) that informed the biblical approach to this disease.
Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (15th century) wrote, “Why did the Torah command that the person afflicted the disease be examined by a priest? Would it not have made sense to have the examination performed by anyone skilled in healing? After all, such a person would also be able to diagnose tzara’at based on medical knowledge and the state of the hair and if the lesion had spread.” According to Abarbanel, tzara’at was not simply a matter of being a contagious disease; it also brought tumah–ritual (spiritual) impurity. “And thus the examination by the priest was not related to healing or medicine, because he might be expert in these matters, rather because the priest might be able to restore the person from his spiritual impurity (tumah); it is he who determines what is impure and what is pure. Moreover, the sacrifices made by the person afflicted with tzara’at are offered by the priest. Thus the laws and ordinances of the tzara’at are executed at the dictate of the priest.”
In the anthology Mayeinah shel Torah (a collection of Hasidic commentaries) it is stated, “Those so afflicted are not defined as those with an ordinary, natural disease. In this case after a week or two of being confined he might improve and be completely healed, during that same time, it is well known, anyone with a normal disease would grow worse and putrefy closed up in a room without air or sunlight. Now, those afflicted in this case are not ill due to natural causes but because of providence, the purpose of which is to make the person repent of his sins. Therefore, even the means of therapy are different than those employed with natural diseases.”
According to Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh (16th century), “Tzara’at does not appear in our generation. This is due to the fact that the affliction was caused as a result of a person being sinful. And, the holiness within that person could not bear that sin and would push it out through the skin in the form of a lesion that, of course, would spiritually defile the person. Yet this was only in previous generations, when that holiness within a Jew was strong and powerful – even against all sin – and had the ability to push even a little impurity out through the skin. Unfortunately today, we do not have this strong holy power and, therefore, we have no such afflictions.”
And so we see here there levels of commentary. Abarbanel says that tzara’at is not a natural “disease” to be treated by doctors as it is not contagious but brings spiritual impurity instead. It is not a matter of health but of holiness. Then we have the Mayeinah shel Torah that emphasized that tzara’at is not a natural disease but goes on to argue that it is a providential warning against sin. Finally, Moshe Alsheikh maintains that the tzara’at described in the Torah portion is a unique phenomenon and does not even exist in our world today.
Perhaps we might add our own commentary – a bit psychological – and suggest that perhaps tzara’at is a metaphor for our deepest fears, just as leprosy/tzara’at was the most frightening disease of the ancient world. It is a symbol of all that we want to hide and from which we want to distance ourselves – to “remove from our camp.” Our tendency is to hide our fears and not reveal them to the light of the sun. Fear might be compared to tumah until we reach that point in time in which we must find a means to be purified, to find shalom/wholeness within us. The function of the priest symbolizes the spiritual dimension of this process of seeking wholeness of the soul.
- Who in our day is forced to “live outside the camp” and why?
- Each of the commentators that we cited changed the simple meaning of the text. Do you agree with their approach?
- How do you relate to the metaphorical approach to tzara’at as representing our deepest fears? How can we find taharah/purification from them?