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The main topic of this week’s Torah reading is tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The belief that leprosy is a biblical Divine punishment has become so widespread that I was once speaking to a group of nurses, and was asked if Judaism allows treatment of lepers, or if we must leave it as a sign of G-d’s will. A careful reading of the text clearly shows that the plague of tzara’athas no connection with leprosy.
Firstly, though the Torah does mention a case of a person who is completely covered from head to toe with tzara’at (who is actually considered tahor - ritually pure), the more common case of tzara’at is limited to a small patch of skin or hair. Furthermore, after describing tzara’at which may afflict a person, the Torah goes on to describe tzara’at of clothing, and tzara’at which affects buildings. No one has yet diagnosed a case of leprosy of a house. Finally the Torah explicitly gives permission, and in fact mandates going to a doctor and searching for a cure for an illness, in the cases of tzara’at mentioned in the Torah portion, the afflicted person must go to a Kohen for diagnoses and for treatment.
The only common feature of leprosy and tzara’at is that the Torah commands one who is afflicted with tzara’at to be exiled alone outside the town in which he or she lives. This is similar to the quarantine of lepers which existed in earlier times, and even today in some parts of the world. But the reason for the isolation in the case of tzara’at is not because of fear of the disease spreading.
As the physical world reflects the spiritual world. Tzara’at is a physical expression of a spiritual malady. This is the reason that the healing process must be through a Kohen not a doctor, and why it involves immersing in a Mikva and bringing a sacrifice.
The disease of tzara’at is not contagious, but the sin which causes it is. The main cause of tzara’at is speaking lashon hara about another person. Lashon Harais often translated as slander. In fact it is the sin of embarrassing someone else by publicising certain information about them that they would not wish for others to know, even if that information is 100% true. This is one of the most serious crimes mentioned in the Torah, comparable to the crime of murder or idol worship. It destroys society and can cause untold suffering and loss, both financial and in terms of status.
Someone who has caused this much damage to society must be made to realise the consequences of his or her actions. In biblical times a person was given gradual warnings, signs giving them a chance to improve their behaviour. First their house was afflicted with leprosy. If this did not motivate them to change their ways their clothing was affected. If they still were unable to learn their lesson they themselves contracted tzara’at. The Torah commands that someone who has this tzara’at must dwell alone outside the camp. This is a punishment which is appropriate to the crime. This person had caused a breakdown in society, therefore they were temporarily removed from society and forced to dwell alone. They were given a week to think about their actions and to repent, and if that failed they were given a second week, until they repented from their lifestyle of lashon hara.
Why do we no longer have this disease nowadays? Surely we are no better than the Jews of former times who were punished with tzara’at? The answer is that if only one or two people are speaking lashon hara, they can be effectively punished, and given a chance to think about the damage they have caused. When the whole of Western society is predicated on the concept of free speech and freedom of the press, regardless of the pain and damage that causes, it is impossible to have tzara’at as an effective punishment. Especially in the current lead up to the elections, when the future of this country is going to be decided by how effective the lashon harais! One could argue that the public have the right to know issues are important to the way someone would or could run Britain, but surely we do not need to know about every bit of sleaze that can be dredged up about anyone in the public eye?
Nowadays our lifestyles are so imbued with speaking and listening to lashon hara that we don’t even pay attention to what we are saying most of the time. How many people are careful about what they say, and how many times are we afraid of who might be listening over our shoulder? This week’s Torah reading gives us an annual reminder to be as careful about what comes out of our mouths as we are about what we put into them.
Last week's Torah reading ended with the laws of ritual purity and impurity caused by animals. This week continues with the laws about human purity and impurity. The Midrash notes that the order is the same as that of creation, where humans came after other life already existed:
"You [G-d] have created me after and before, and have laid Your hand upon me." (Tehillim 139; 4). Reish Lakish said, "After" refers to the last day of creation, "Before" refers to the first day. [where the verse hints to the human soul with the words], "The spirit of the L-rd hovered over the face of the water". If a person merits they say to them, 'You were created before everything else in existence', but if not they say to them, 'A mosquito was created before you'. Rabbi Simlai said, 'Just as humans were created after animals and birds, so too the laws [of purity] of people follow those of animals and birds'.
Reish Lakish's cryptic statement can be understood by recognising that a person is made up of two opposites, a spiritual soul and a physical body. These two are in constant conflict, each pursuing its own desires. The soul yearns for the spiritual delights of drawing close to G-d through performing mitzvot and studying Torah. The body wants physical pleasures, chasing after money, food and physical comforts. In certain areas of our lives the soul has control, in others the body. The point of intersection between the two is where we have free choice to follow either path.
Reish Lakish explains that though the physical body was not created until the end of the sixth day of creation, the soul was present from the first. Therefore if a person follows their spiritual urges seeking to draw closer to G-d, they are defined by their soul and to them it may be said, 'You were created before anything else...'. However, if a person's decisions are made by the body and its physical desires, the soul is less discernible, and therefore they are reminded that their body was created after even the insects.
The higher the spiritual potential of something, the greater is the risk of spiritual impurity. Minerals have no soul, and therefore do not impart impurity. The vegetable kingdom has a lowly form of soul, which allows growth and movement. Animals have a higher soul, which permits thought and instinct. Humans have the highest level of soul, which is described in Jewish literature as the level of speech.
The source of impurity is the body, which leads the soul away from G-d. A newborn baby is full of potential, but this is only realised over time as it is governed less by bodily urges and needs. Therefore birth, which is the completion of the physical body imparts impurity.
It is appropriate that we read this portion so soon after Pesach, the time of the birth of the nation. Similarly the counting of the Omer, of which we are in the midst, ties in with the concept of 'Before' and 'After'. The Jews in Egypt had reached the lowest level of spiritual impurity, to the point that had they remained there even a moment longer they would have lost their spirituality completely, and thus been unable to leave. Yet after counting seven weeks they had reached the level of spiritual perfection where they could experience the revelation of G-d at Mount Sinai. In a sense this self-perfection is the inverse of G-d's creation. G-d first created the soul, and then placed it within the body which draws it away from its true purpose. The Israelite nation elevated their physical bodies to the heights of spiritual perfection.
Each year we are able to relive this growth through the counting of the Omer. The Torah commands us to count from the "day after Shabbat", which refers to the first day of Pesach. Shabbat is both the beginning of the coming week, and the end of the previous week. It is the 'Seventh day' and yet within it we find the spiritual sustenance to get us through the next week. By calling Pesach 'Shabbat' the Torah is telling us that Pesach was both the starting point from which to grow to spiritual heights, and the goal for which we aimed. The Jews were involved in physical labour that gave them no opportunity for spiritual growth. Yet they witnessed G-d's hand in Egypt, the direct revelation that they were to experience again at Mount Sinai. They entire nation was as a newborn baby, full of as yet unrealised potential, redeemed by G-d in the merit of the spiritual heights that they would reach in the future.
Just as the nation experienced spiritual growth during these weeks, we can use this same time period for our own individual growth, in preparation for our personal acceptance of the Torah at Shavuot. We count each day and week to chart the incremental spiritual growth, leading to the fulfillment of our potential.
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