Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

A Call From the Infinite

A large part of our Parshiyos Tazria and Metzora addresses the phenomenon of tzara'as. Commentators note that, in contrast to the standard English translation of tzara'as as leprosy, in reality, this malady was a not a classic medical disease but rather a physical manifestation of a Divine punishment. Evidence to this approach includes the fact that the metzora (one afflicted with tzara'as) is only banned from walled cities (Mishna Keilim 1:7). In addition, the decision as to the status of the afflicted individual is totally in the hands of a religious figure, the kohein, not a physician, and until such time as the kohein declares him to be tamei, ritually impure, he remains tahor, pure, even if another expert in the laws of tzara'as finds him to exhibit all the requisite signs (see Rashi Tazria 13:2, s.v. "el Aharon"). If indeed tzara'as were a medical condition, then the metzora should be banned from all cities as a quarantine measure and should immediately be declared a leper by any qualified doctor, not a kohein.

One of the unique laws of tzara'as is that of "kulo hafach lavan tahor hu" (Tazria 13:13) -- if the entire body of the metzora turns white, even if the other signs of tzara'as manifest themselves, the individual is declared tahor. Medically, of course, this would be irrational. However, even in light of the true Divine cause of the ailment, this halacha (law) seems difficult to understand. If the "disease" spreads to his entire body, shouldn't this indicate a greater manifestation of Divine wrath, and consequently shouldn't the one so afflicted be declared tamei with certainty?

R. Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chayim based on his magnum opus on the laws concerning gossip and slander, proposes a possible explanation for this unique regulation. The Talmud Arachin (16b) comments that tzara'as is a punishment for a variety of sins including gossip, slander, and murder. The cause of all of these sins can be attributed to an inflated sense of self-importance. The gossiper only thinks of the enjoyment he receives in transmitting disparaging information about others without regard to the possible harm that such talk might inflict upon the victims of his speech. The murderer clearly does not value the life of his victim as he does his own. The eventual isolation of the metzora, exiled from major population centers, serves to force the afflicted one to rethink his harmful attitude and realize his ultimate dependence on the very people whose lives he formerly did not value. It also encourages the necessary sense of humility and submission to G-d that is crucial for true penitence. Consequently, when the signs of tzara'as are not as pronounced, when the individual was not fully aware of the degree of Divine displeasure with his actions, perhaps even attributing his "disease" to some transient, medical condition, is it necessary for the isolation to be utilized as a constructive, punitive measure to bring about the desired penitent state. When the symptoms are so all-encompassing as to engulf his entire body, the metzora cannot help but be fully aware of the magnitude of his sin and therefore does not need expulsion from cities to bolster his t'shuva process. Often, the greatest degree of penitence comes when the sinner has fallen to such a nadir that he realizes that he cannot remain at that level lest he risk utter spiritual destruction.

R. Yitzchak Hutner z"l, the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, in a letter to a student, explains a passage in Mishlei (24:16) in a similar vein. "Sheva yipol tzadik v'kam", "the righteous one falls seven times, yet gets up." This is generally interpreted to mean that even though the righteous individual stumbles often in his spiritual journey, he always rises again. R. Hutner suggests an alternative explanation. Because the tzadik fell seven times, he rose to even higher heights. Through realizing the spiritual bankruptcy of his moral failings, the righteous individual learns from his past errors and soars to greater levels of Divine service.

A similar idea appears in Masechet Sanhedrin (97b) in a dispute concerning the process of redemption. R. Eliezer maintains that ge'ula must be preceded by t'shuva, whereas R. Yehoshua posits that redemption can occur even without repentance. In the ensuing discussion, R. Yehoshua agrees that repentance is a necessary prerequisite for ge'ula, but he maintains that, absent repentance occurring out of a loving desire to return to G-d, Hashem will cause an evil leader to arise whose decrees are as harsh as Haman's, and, as a result, the Jewish people will repent. Apparently, although free will is preserved, desperate situations inevitably lead to submission to G-d, soul-searching and repentance. Just as the metzora whose entire body is plagued realizes the extent of his spiritual malaise even without enforced isolation, so too K'lal Yisrael, according to R. Yehoshua, after undergoing immense suffering, will also realize the cause of their hopeless situation and seek to better themselves, ultimately bringing about salvation.

The Rambam (Hilchot Ta'aniyot Chapter 1) directs us in times of Jewish tragedy to analyze our actions, emend our mistakes, and increase our devotion to intense prayer and service of G-d. To do otherwise, to attribute the tragedy solely to historical circumstances, thus ignoring the Divine wake-up call, would be cruel to oneself and to the k'lal and might lead to greater suffering. In these troubling times for Jews the world over and especially in our Holy Land, let us daven to the true Ish Milchama (B'shalach 15:3) that our soldiers be successful in their battles against the evil forces who seek to inflict constant suffering on our nation. And let us attempt to bring about the necessary repentance which will assuredly lead to the end of all tribulations.

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