Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Metzorah 5776
Ignoring the Signs
Perhaps it’s human nature: You see something on your skin you hadn’t noticed before. Has it always been there? Did it suddenly appear? You could have it checked by the doctor, but why make a fuss? You can just wait for your next regularly-scheduled visit – if there is one…
Modern man grapples with many fears. Whereas our ancestors worried about obtaining life’s basic necessities, we fear disease. They feared upheaval and calamity; we fear the disastrous results of years of excess. Some of us think we have it figured out: If you never have yourself examined, you are never sick. After all, they reason, illness is not real; it is the subjective determination of a physician. The problem with this thesis, of course, is that it is false.
The Torah speaks of a similar phenomenon, albeit in the metaphysical sphere: A lesion appears on the skin. It was not there yesterday; it should be examined. Here, though, the person who must perform the examination is not trained as a physician, he is born a kohen, because this ailment is not physical; it is a spiritual malady, or, to be more accurate, a physical expression of a spiritual condition.
The Torah describes the condition afflicting body, clothing or home in great detail: This is tzara’at. Although often translated as “leprosy,” most commentaries insist that the condition otherwise known as Hansen’s disease has nothing in common with tzara’at aside from the English translation it has been assigned. Rambam (laws of Tum’at Tzara’at chapter 16), for one, insists that the presentation of tzara’at is so different in its varied manifestations that it has nothing to do with the physical malady known as leprosy.
Tradition has generally associated the appearance of tzara’at with misspeech, be it divisive, hateful speech, slander, character assassination or even non-constructive, frivolous chatter. Thus, the kohen’s diagnosis of tzara’at is the first step along a long path of spiritual rehabilitation – but it is a step that cannot be skipped: Treatment cannot begin until the kohen has made his declaration -- unlike the physical ailment of leprosy which, if left untreated, whether a doctor pronounces a diagnosis or not, can result in death. Tzara’at is not tzara’at until it is declared so by a kohen, and is not treated until the kohen’s diagnosis is pronounced. (Rashi 14:36)
This crucial first step creates a distinct possibility for avoidance: Theoretically, a person can live in denial, hide the symptoms, and avoid altogether the “ordeal” of facing the kohen and the “treatment” that will ensue. Unfortunately, the underlying cause of the tzara’at, left untreated, can and will take its toll. Just as a person who ignores the warning signs of a physical ailment and avoids treatment will eventually face the physical consequences of neglect, so, too, the person afflicted with tzara’at who chooses to ignore the warning signs does damage to his or her soul. Ignoring the symptoms of tzara’at will not lead to physical demise, yet left unchecked, the malady festers and metastasizes, and causes pain to those around us.
The Torah teaches us to be sensitive - to minor changes in our person, our clothing, our homes, as well as to the feelings of those around us. Just as we should be sensitive to the physical health of our bodies and take note of changes, so, too, we are commanded to be sensitive to our spiritual health and to the wellbeing of our personal space, and to ask the kohen to pay a house call if any suspicious spots appear. If the kohen identifies the problem as tzara’at, the stricken individual must follow the instructions for containment and quarantine with precision, but equally importantly, he or she must correct the underlying cause of the ailment: A new diet of words and modes of conversation must take the place of the destructive, hurtful speech that brought tazara’at in its wake. The sufferer must take advantage of the period of isolation to learn to use the gift of speech to comfort and uplift those around him, to recognize the spark of the divine within others, and to allow that same spark of divinity within himself to shine.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden