Parshat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1–15:33
Tzara’at, the biblical discoloration of human skin and other objects, is given center stage for the majority of two parshat in the Torah. But tzara’at can be confusing. Since tzara’at that appears on the body includes quarantine in its treatment, it seems to be a physical illness. The Torah is obviously not a medical text. Why does it discuss this illness at all? If tzara’at, however, is not a physical illness, but rather a spiritual/supernatural condition, it certainly would be within the Torah’s purview. If that would be the case, however, we would expect the Torah to make some mention of its spiritual cause — but it doesn’t. Is the nature of this affliction physical or spiritual?
Maimonidies, in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:47), seems to amalgamate both options into one. In his list of beneficial aspects of the laws of tzara’at, he mentions that the quarantine isolates the repulsive and (apparently) contagious illness. At the same time, he emphasizes the rabbinic interpretation that views tzara’at as an essentially miraculous Divine reprimand for talking disparagingly about others (lashon hara). Tzara’at in Maimonidies’ view emerges as a singular illness with both spiritual and physical dimensions.
If the combination of physical and spiritual capacities is one way to describe what makes human beings unique, perhaps the tzara’at illness is uniquely human. Physically — that is, biologically — we are remarkably similar to other forms of life. Our similarities to animals are obvious, but our DNA has much in common even with plants. But while it is also obvious that we are physically different than animals in many significant ways, it can be argued that these physical differences amount to no more than differences in degree. It is the added component of our non-physical differences that truly differentiates man from beast.
The ancient philosophers had these differences in mind when they defined man as the rational animal. But there are many other human capacities aside from intelligence that define us. We are able to analyze and learn the lessons of the past. We can envision a better future. We can make moral and ethical judgments. We can contemplate our purpose in life. We can anticipate the consequences of our actions. We can delay gratification.
It is difficult to imagine a lion on the savanna considering not to pursue a gazelle because it conflicts with its moral conscience, or an iguana asking itself, “Why am I here?” Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski asserts that this palette of uniquely human abilities is what we refer to when we speak of our neshama, or spirit. When we utilize these uniquely human abilities it can be referred to as acting spiritually. But acting spiritually is a choice. We can choose to think about our purpose in life, or we may not. We can act morally, or we may not. What if we ignore this side of our nature and choose not to act spiritually and function instead on a level that de-emphasizes our uniquely human capabilities? Just as the body has its needs for food, water and rest, so too does our spirit have its own needs. Failure to eat or sleep for too long impacts us negatively physically. So too, suggests Rabbi Twerski, failure to provide the spirit with its needs impacts us negatively spiritually. If we don’t exercise and implement our spiritual traits — if we don’t think about our purpose or we ignore our conscience — it leaves us unfulfilled.
In our post-biblical world, we know not the affliction of tzara’at. But its two-pronged approach that acknowledges both the physical and the spiritual is an important reminder of the need to think about not only our physical health, but our spiritual health as well. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, associate rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.