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On the eighth day…the kohen who purifies [the metzora] shall place the person being purified before G-d at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting… The kohen shall take [from the purifying metzora] the one lamb and bring it as an asham - a guilt offering… (14:11-12)
Mitzvot 169-172 in the Sefer HaChinuch focus on tzaraat together with its spiritual root causes. They include lashon hara, tale-bearing, overbearing haughtiness, and similar anti-social behavior (Arachin 16a). Rashi stresses that it is lashon hara that causes husbands to be separated from wives, and friends from one another.
The Chinuch writes that tzaraat was created to impress on the individual that G-d is closely watching all the time. Tzaraat is not a mere punishment, but an act of love: Like a father who chastises his son, so G-d chastises you. G-d brings tzaraat into the lives of individuals so that they may reflect on their past behavior and attend at once to correcting their faulty character traits.
Indeed, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not 'leprosy' but a Divinely imposed sign of moral deficiency. This follows from the Ramban and the Sforno, who emphasize the reality that such afflictions on garments and personal items are not natural phenomena, but only occurred when the Israelites as a whole were living in harmony with the Creator. Where individuals stepped out of line, reminders might take place in the form of G-d-imposed ugly green and red discolorations on personal possessions.
The Sforno writes at length about the situation in which such tzaraat occurred. It is within the role and framework of being the am segula, the chosen, treasured people who are expected to set the standards of behavior for humanity (c.f. Deut. 7:6). Among them, the message of the appearance of tzaraat on personal items would be fully understood and acted upon at once. Thus tzaraat reflected badly on the individual, but well on the rest of the community. It is effectively saying that the people are behaving as they should, apart from those singled out.
But in contrast, once Israel as a whole failed to live up to their ultimate purpose, they were no longer worthy for their individuals to be singled out in that way. That, says the Sforno, is why such tzaraat had not occurred for many generations.
The situation may be compared to a class where a brilliant teacher has attentive, interested, and well-disciplined students in an atmosphere that maximizes the classroom experience. But as all teachers know, even the best students are not perfect and they are not always as receptive as they should be, especially on a wet Thursday afternoon. A raised eyebrow pointed in the precise direction will convey the message to a temporarily wandering mind, without disturbing the full-flow of the proceedings within the classroom. Indeed, the teacher's success in correcting the situation with the slightest, but well-directed glance implies a very high morale in the classroom.
In contrast, the glance will go unnoticed where the class is unruly and populated with habitually non-co-operative and disobedient students. There, much more deliberate and severe measures will be required to create the right effect.
Perhaps the near modern-day equivalent may be in the Gemara's advice: "When unpleasant things happen, consider carefully your own behavior" (Brachot 5a). As it says: "Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d" (Lam. 3:40).
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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