This week’s Parsha, Metzora, concludes the subject of tzaraat, which was introduced in last week’s reading.
Tzaraat are supernatural plagues that affected the homes, furniture and bodies of certain types of sinners. This phenomenon existed only when the Jews were on a high spiritual plane and the appearance of these unique afflictions might rouse the sinner to repent.
At present, we are no longer subject to these maladies. Still, the study of their nature and purpose provides very timely lessons.
Tzaraat is associated with significant sins — most prominently, that of lashon haarah (evil speech). Of course, no one is perfect and anyone can slip from time to time. In the normal course of things the transgressor should regret his action and do teshuva. If sincere, it will be accepted by G-d and life will go on.
However, not every sinner is open to repentance.
Many people assume an attitude of denial regarding their flaws. This is especially true in the matter of slander because the harm is not visible and so is more easily ignorable. The chronic slanderer derives much emotional gratification from vilification of others and readily rationalizes his behavior.
In order for him to be helped, he must find himself in a position where he can no longer deflect his sinfulness. The purpose of tzaraat is to transform his spiritual blights into tangible manifestations of blotches on physical objects that are very dear to him, including his own skin.
When mysterious discolorations of no known origin make their appearance, the sinner is seized with anxiety and desperately seeks an explanation and a cure which can only be provided by the person designated by Hashem to be the teacher and moral guide of his Chosen People, the Kohen (Priest).
Only he is authorized to pronounce the symptoms as manifestations of tzaraat and thereby initiate the healing process. The Kohen will then work with the victim and assist him in the process of overcoming his defect and regaining a status of purity.
It may sound strange, but I believe we must view tzaraat as a profound expression of Divine mercy. Hashem displays great concern for the well-being not only of the righteous but of the sinner as well.
The biblical precedent for this can be seen in the encounter between Avraham and Avimelech. Avraham feared that the people of impaired sexual restraint would murder him in order to obtain his exceedingly beautiful wife, Sara. They therefore conspired to pretend that she was his sister.
When they entered his kingdom, Avimelech was informed of her beauty and she was brought to his palace. Hashem struck him and his entire household with painful plagues. He also visited Avimelech in a dream and instructed him to return Sara to Avraham and entreat that prophet to pray for him to be cured from
The divine plagues were responsible for saving Sara and healing Avimelech. These turned out to be a blessing and illustrates the teaching that “the one whom G-d loves does He rebuke.”
There are many social institutions in Judaism that provide great intellectual and ethical benefits designed to ensure the spiritual health of the collective.
However, we may ask, what about those who are not inspired to be part of the group and conform to its exacting moral standards? What about those who fall through the cracks and chart a prohibited course for themselves?
It might be tempting to write them off and exhort them to become worthy members of society and play by its rules. Does the recalcitrant slanderer deserve special personal assistance?
Parshat Metzora answers in the affirmative.
Hashem visits the transgressor with painful afflictions that are entirely for his benefit. Hashem arranges for him to have a personal relationship with his designated teacher, the Kohen. His task is to rehabilitate the sinner and restore him to a state of spiritual purity in order to become a valued member of Jewish society.
Tzaraat is truly an expression of Hashem’s infinite mercy for all of His creatures whether they are deserving or not. May we merit to emulate His ways. JN
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix.