This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Jesse Abelman
Tsaraat, leprosy, occupies a problematic place in our tradition. It, along with a host of other negaim, plagues, that can appear either on the human body or on inanimate objects such as buildings or textiles, are a cause of impurity which can only be purged through sacrifice and immersion in a mikvah. Unique among the causes of impurity, these plagues require the one stricken to leave the community for a designated amount of time before returning to take part in the purgation ritual. Hazal uniformly agree that tsaraat is a punishment for slander, exemplified by R. Yochanan b. Zakai’s statement to that effect in Arachin 15b, though there are many more examples. The value judgment imposed on metsoraim, those afflicted by tsaraat, by this opinion is remarkable. As Nehama Leibowitz pointed out with typical clarity and succinctness in her fourth essay on Parashat Tazria, “the Torah does not identify the terms ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ with the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ or ‘saint’ and ‘sinner.’” A mother is not in any sense wicked for giving birth, though she is impure afterward and the impurity must be purged. There is no judgment cast against a person who comes in contact with the dead, though touching a corpse causes impurity. Yet, in the case of tsaraat, we are asked to believe that it only afflicts the wicked, in particular slanderers.
The Haftara for Tazria cuts against Hazal‘s reading. We are told about Naaman, the general of Aram, that G-d had granted him victory. He was also a leper. Naaman approaches the prophet Elisha to be cured of his leprosy, and after a simple bath in the Jordan is cured, miraculously. The point of this story is to show G-d’s power to cure disease. No rationale is provided for his leprosy, and no repentance for sin is required for its cure.
Modern Bible scholarship is also reluctant to see Tsaraat as fundamentally different from other causes of impurity. Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus argues that the overarching theme of the biblical impurity system is death. Everything that causes impurity has some relationship to death. Tsaraat causes the afflicted to have the appearance of a corpse, wasting away with his flesh coming off his body. This links it to corpses, which cause impurity. The loss of blood in menstruation and childbirth (paradoxically), as well as the emission of semen are the loss of lifeforce, which itself is a small step on the way to death. However, even Milgrom acknowledges that the Torah often does see tsaraat as a punishment, in particular in the case of Miriam, Moses’ sister who spoke against him. So we are left with the question: What is unique about Tsaraat? Why does it hold this particular place in our system of purity, that it alone is given to the sinner, to the person who speaks against another? Why is it associated with, if not evil, then at least venality, when everything tells us it should not be.
John Updike, writing about his struggles with the skin condition psoriasis (a condition that, in the interests of full disclosure, I will note that I share) in his essay “At War with my Skin,” speaks about the intense shame that he associated with revealing his scabbed patches of afflicted skin. The white flakes, the shedding, the unsightly red patches, they combined to create a distinct shame he felt he could not share with the world. As a child, he did not go swimming out of embarrassment. When he encountered his college swimming instructor thirty years later he writes that he “could scarcely manage politeness, his face so sharply brought back that old suppressed rich mix of chlorine and fear and brave grasping and naked, naked shame.” The memory of that exposure still traumatized him, decades later.
Updike’s shame reveals a key element of the human condition. He did not want to expose his unsightly skin to the world, but, as he writes, the world seemed relatively indifferent to it. Children did not mock him as a child; women did not seem to find him less attractive as an adult. Though his condition was obvious to others when he rolled up his sleeves, the only person it made a difference to was himself. This, I believe, is the secret of tsaraat, the key to its unique status in the purity system. The metsora is banished from the community before he can be purged of his impurity, the impurity he contracted through his sin. Tsaraat externalizes the sin, laying it bare for all the world to see, showing everybody that he is, however temporarily, an outsider. But, ironically, as obvious as it is, others are indifferent to it. They may notice the tsaraat, but they have no interest in creating shame. The shame experienced is internal, the exile self imposed. This is the power of tzaraat as punishment. God punishes us, by having us punish ourselves.
Rabbi Jesse Abelman (SBM 2009) is working towards a Ph.D in Medieval Jewish History at Yeshiva University and teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.