Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Hishamer be-Nega ha-Ttzaraat: The Challenge of Overcoming Human Pettiness

The enigmatic halachot of tzaraat dominate the parshiyot of Tazria and Metzora. The Torah elaborates the details of this extraordinary phenomenon in a manner that is unparalleled by other transgressions. The topic is highlighted again in parshat Ki Teitzei (Devarim 24:8), where we are explicitly warned to avoid behavior that will trigger tzaraat, ordered to follow the kohanim and leviim, and charged to remember and internalize the story of Miriam's affliction with this condition. The Ramban (Devarim 24:8; Hashmatot, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Esin no. 6) even counts this imperative as one of the 613 commandments, alongside the obligation to remember and internalize other crucial themes such as the Sabbath, the Exodus from Egypt, and the attack by Amalek! Apparently, the implications inherent in contracting tzaraat and rehabilitating from it constitute a major tenet in Jewish life, one that is consistently relevant and consequential, although the actual experience is mysterious and rare.

Perhaps we may better understand the significance of tzaraat by noting an interesting irony. The condition is perceived to be a supernatural or miraculous expression of Divine disapproval; yet, it is triggered by the most common and natural of human excesses.

A wide range of commentators (Rambam [end of Hilchot Tzaraat; Perush ha-Mishnayot, Negaim 12:5; Moreh 3:47], Ramban [Vayikra 13:47], R. Yehudah ha-Levi [Kuzari 2:58:62]) underscore that this affliction constitutes a direct Divine intervention that reveals an exclusively spiritual malady. For this reason, tzaraat is confined to life in Eretz Yisrael, possibly only in an era in which the land is invested with sanctity. The fact that the Kohein's proclamation determines the status of tzaraat, and that he has the discretionary license to delay the onset of the process reflects the controlling force of halachic authority in confronting the spiritual flaw that generates this supernatural manifestation.

The Talmud and midrash (Arachin 15a-16a; midrash on Tazria and Ki Teitzei) unequivocally establish that tzaraat is primarily a result of lashon ha-ra (malicious gossip), a typical human failing. Although it is common, this transgression is hardly innocuous. Chazal compare this breach which can destroy a persons reputation and standing to the three primary halachic categories of murder, idolatry and illicit relationships that demand martyrdom. In some contexts, gossip is portrayed as being equally destructive as murder, or heresy. Despite the severity of the offense, the supernatural response of tzaraat remains puzzling.

However, it is possible that it is precisely the ubiquity of this offense and the fact that it is such a quintessentially petty human failing that makes it particularly pernicious, and that triggers this severe Divine intervention. Lashon ha-ra reflects man's dismal failure to rise to the challenge of tzelem Elokim (being in the Divine image). As Onkelos notes in Bereishit, it is precisely the power of articulation ("ruach memalela") that distinguishes man's special potential. The abuse of articulation that occurs when it is employed to promote petty and divisive human competition, completely undermines man's spiritual objective. The very fact that the tzarua does not to transcend his most base instincts, choosing instead to remain mired in a petty ego-centrist vision of the world, bespeaks of his spiritual failure. The gemara in Arachin specifically reinforces the view that an unrestrained ego, the root of gossip, precludes a relationship with Hashem - "ein ani ve-hu yecholin ladur be-olam ehad".

Only a quintessentially spiritual affliction might jolt man from his lethargy and mediocrity, spurring a reevaluation of his true religious capacity and spiritual objective. The Sefer ha-Hinuch emphasizes that tzaraat inspires the teshuvah process, and entails a complete reevaluation of one's conduct, not merely the neutralization of the particular and immediate actions that brought about his plight. The pesukim in Ki Teitzei underscore the broader requirement to follow the spiritual mentors of Klal Yisrael, the kohanim and leviim.

Moreover, the tzarua is sequestered from society because he has failed to employ social interaction constructively. Instead of using the gift of articulation to uplift himself and unite humankind in Divine service, he has utilized this power divisively to secure his relative stature at the expense of others. He cultivates the misguided counterproductive competitive impulse of "mitkabed be-kelon chavero (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 4:4), rather than the spiritually advantageous perspective of "kinat soferim tarbeh chachmah", which is built on reciprocal admiration and mutual inspiration. The tzarua's isolation and estrangement from others forces him to confront his true destiny as an oved Hashem, as well as to reflect upon how social interaction can be constructively harnessed to elevate mankind's halachic-spiritual goals.

The Torah's high ambition for man, its view on the potential constructive role of social interaction, and its lack of tolerance for the ubiquitous, petty, and pernicious sin of gossip and the misguided values it entails, mandate the importance of the theme of tzaraat, even if the actual experience is rare. The process of rehabilitation from this spiritual malady may be perceived as a spiritual refocusing of values and priorities. As the Ramban notes these laws are always consequential and should be internalized and articulated together with the other "zachor" themes in all eras.

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