By Rabbi Jay Yaacov Schwartz
There is the well-known homiletical observation that the three letters for the word nega (a wound or an affliction) — nun, gimmel, ayin — can be reformulated to spell the word oneg (pleasure). Seeing that these two words represent polar opposites, it behooves us to ponder the deeper message of this parashah of tzara’as, which is a highly detailed, overwhelmingly complex, and seemingly incomprehensible section of the Torah.
Chazal, beginning in the Gemara in Arachin 15b, attribute the various types of tzara’as (seven specific and unique types delineated in the parashah) to various spiritual flaws. The purpose of the tzara’as and the subsequent encounter with the kohen — to either declare the sufferer impure, to further the quarantine, or to declare him pure — is not only a method of dealing with a dermatological health issue; its purpose is to address the specific spiritual character flaw that the various nega’im represent.
The Nesivos Shalom explains that the kohen’s job generally is to bring kapparah, atonement and forgiveness, for the Jewish nation. The fact that the kohen here is required to declare impure and isolate a Jew from his family and fellows seems to be out of character. Therefore, it can only be understood as part of a larger process of spiritual cleansing and purification, which the kohen helps his yisrael counterpart to accomplish.
In the aforementioned Gemara in Arachin, Rabi Yosi ben Zimra says tzara’as comes upon one who speaks lashon ha’ra (hence the word metzorah is equated with someone who slanders, i.e. motzi shem ra). Reish Lakish asks: Why does it say, “Zos tihyeh Toras ha’metzorah?” According to the Maharsha, it should have said ha’tzaru’ah. The answer is that this is the law of motzi shem ra. (This usually refers to one who falsely claims that his bride was not a virgin, but here it refers to any slanderer.)
The Kli Yakar, based on the Gemara Nedarim 31b, expands on the theme by saying that the cure for the metzorah is learned from the opening section of Tazria, which include the laws of b’ris milah. He identifies the various types of spiritual orlah (foreskin) that must be circumcised in a spiritual sense, especially orlas ha’peh, unholy speech, which includes lashon ha’ra.
Based on Rashi’s interpretation of the items used to purify the metzorah, the Kli Yakar names other types of spiritual maladies. These include ga’avah (haughtiness), as characterized by the s’ais variety of tzara’as); the sapachat, which represents an external craving for unessential needs such as extreme wealth; and baheres, which is whiteness, for someone who is malbin p’nei chaveiro, someone who embarrasses and humiliates a fellow Jew.
This demonstrates that the Kli Yakar attributes a specific character flaw to a specific type of tzara’as that appears, as a way of revealing the nature of the afflicted person’s malady of character that needs to be treated and cured.
The Toras Kohanim actually identifies seven types of tzara’as, each one with its own Torah section and unique laws.
One could extend this thought by suggesting that the words for the colors lavan, adom, and tzahov/zahav (white, red, and yellow/gold), meaning colors of the skin or sei’ar (hair), are indicators of specific problems. Lavan reminds us of Lavan HaArami, noted for his extreme stinginess, jealousy, and dishonesty. Adom and sei’ar (hair) remind us of Eisav, identified with bloodshed, lust, and anger, as well as self-deception. Tzahov/zahav reminds us of the egel ha’zahav, the sin of false beliefs, lack of emunah, and extreme focus on acquisition of wealth.
It is also interesting to note that the first of the seven sections of nega’im in the parashah (Vayikra 13:2) begins with the phrase “Adam ki yihyeh b’or b’saro s’eis, sapachas oh baheres, v’haya b’or b’saro l’nega tzara’as — If a person will have on the skin of his flesh . . .” Here the afflicted is called an adam, the highest appellation for a human being, as the Kli Yakar points out based on the pasuk in Yechezkel (34:31): “Adam atem—the Jewish people are called adam” (see Yevamos 61a).
In this instance, the person is still intact, in his or her most dignified sense. However, there is something on their skin, b’or b’saro, that calls to attention a degradation of their lofty level of adam in the direction of b’or, another reference to Lavan who is also associated with Bilam ben B’or, the polar opposite of Avraham’s good middos of a good eye, a humble spirit, and a mindset of modesty (see Pirkei Avos 5:22).
In the second section, however, the pasuk reads (Vayikra 13:9): “Nega tzara’as ki tihyeh b’adam,” indicating that the nega has overtaken or preceded the description of this individual as an adam, marking a further descent from a previous status.
The third section and the fourth section both begin with the word basar, flesh, the lowest appellation given to human beings, where in fact there is not much distinction between human and animal-like behavior. This is the description of the degraded state of man during the generation of the mabul, as it says (Bereishis 6:13), “Vayomer Elokim l’Noach, ketz kol basar bah lefanai, ki mal’ah ha’aretz chamas mi’p’neihem — Hashem said to Noach, the end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them.”
In this sorry state, man is held accountable not only for his own plummet to depraved moral depths but for dragging down the very state of the world with him through his corruption.
The sequence of these parshiyos from a higher to lower level indicates that if untended, these spiritual flaws will take root and will transform the person from a tzelem Elokim to a dangerous creature-like being, wreaking havoc and, therefore, deserving isolation from society.
But as the Kli Yakar points out, the Torah gave us the cure before the affliction. The beginning of the parashah describes the process of birth, including the mitzvah of b’ris milah at eight days, which reflects the idea of milas orlas ha’lev — the circumcision of the heart in thought, speech, and deed — as a model of purity. By lowering our egos, our appetites, and our desire to control others, we begin a journey back to the level of Adam HaRishon prior to sin, uplifting our environment and all those around us.
It is, therefore, obvious, that this dual parashah of Tazria-Metzorah is perhaps more relevant today than ever, calling those in our generation of moral ambiguity to elevate our dialogue, speak the truth, and use our voices in the way that they were originally intended, not to defame, degrade, or demoralize others, but, in kohen-like fashion, to bless them and give them strength, to mend and repair relationships, and to inspire others in the service of Hashem. A timely lesson indeed.
Rabbi Schwartz is the founder of Mosdot Kanfey Shemesh, a recognized amuta in Israel and the U.S. which, in addition to Torah education and outreach, provides expert social services and support for the Jewish community of Ramat Beit Shemesh, including marital and family therapy and financial counseling for families, in conjunction with local major tzedakah organizations and rabbanim.