Tzara’at is a type of leprosy- a skin disease- described in the Torah. This affliction is actually unique in that it is spiritual in nature; its root cause and even its symptoms are unrelated to regular physiological rules. Our Rabbis, in the Talmud and Midrash, teach that there are several causes of tzara’at, which usually comes as a form of punishment. For example, the principal sin for which one contracts tzara’at is lashon hara, speaking badly of others; Miriam famously received the malady after speaking badly* about her brother Moshe Rabbenu.
The leprosy spots themselves are not the worst part for someone with tzara’at; rather, the obligations the Torah places on him are.
Fist of all, his impurity forces him to stay outside of the Jewish encampment until a Kohen declares that the tzara’at is gone. On top of that, he must announce loudly to all passers-by that he is a metzora (one who has tzara’at) so that they can steer clear of him. Afterward, the metzora must also undergo a humbling offering ceremony before finally being allowed re-entry into society.
The Da’as Sofer (Rav Akiva Sofer, Hungary & Israel; 1878-1959) makes an observation on the verse introducing these laws:
A man who will have on the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen or to one of his sons the Kohanim.
Why, he asks, does the Torah not simply state
“And it will be tzara’at” ?
–Why mention for a second time that the affliction is “on the skin of his flesh?”
The Da’as Sofer answers that these words are there to hint to a universal phenomenon: a person can’t see his own faults, as he is biased regarding his own character and deeds; it is therefore imperative to get pointers and guidance from friends, parents, teachers, and Rabbis. The people around you- especially those with wisdom and experience who also have your best interest in mind- are equipped to see those mistakes that you may minimize or excuse. As the K’sav Sofer (the Da’as Sofer’s grandfather) explained the verse,
And they shall confess their sin, and the sin of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me- and also that they have gone casually with Me.
In the next verse Hashem tells us that He will punish B’nei Israel measure for measure- even though the verse we’ve just read describes B’nei Israel as repenting and admitting their wrongdoing! How does this make sense?
The K’sav Sofer explains that the verse is referring to a very problematic confession; it reads,
and they will claim that the sin of their fathers was the cause of their bad behavior.
-That is, if B’nei Israel recognize that they have strayed from the correct path, but insist on blaming their parents by saying that the previous generation made mistakes that caused the current generation to fail,
in such a case Hashem will surely punish these sinners who refuse to accept that they themselves are to blame.
This concept is reflected by the law that a person– even if he is learned – cannot decide his own tzara’at case by declaring himself pure or impure (or questionable). He needs another person (specifically a Kohen) to do so. Why? According to the Mussar masters (ethics teachers), it’s because one cannot properly evaluate his own blemish.
Now the extra words of the verse can be read in a new way:
He must realize that the tzara’at is on the skin of his own flesh
-the metzora needs to recognize that if the tzara’at is on him, it is because he did something wrong and he is at fault.
We should still try to understand something: why does the Torah use the laws of tzara’at in particular to teach us the concept we’ve been discussing? The Torah could have just as easily taught us that one cannot see his own faults via a different set of laws.
The answer may be that this is a lesson for those who speak lashon hara. Someone who says negative things about another person only does so because he sees something negative to begin with. His cynical, judgmental view of his friend is what allows him to even think about expressing such thoughts. That being said, the message for such a person is simple: you only see (or think that you see) other people’s flaws because you can’t see your own. Realize that you yourself are far from perfect, and you may not be so quick to cast others in a bad light.
May we accustom ourselves to seeing the good in others, and learn to listen to those who want to help us improve.
Have a great Shabbat!
* Miriam meant no harm about her brother, and simply judged his actions based on equating him with other prophets when she should have viewed him as the single greatest prophet. Even so, she was punished with tzara’at. How careful we must all be to avoid really mean-spirited talk about others.
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.