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The Trouble of Tzara'at

The Trouble of Tzara'at

Further thoughts on Parashat Tazria

by John J. Parsons

Our Torah portion this week continues the discussion of the laws of "purity" (i.e., tahorah: טָהֳרָה) and "impurity" (i.e., tumah: טֻמְאָה) that began with parashat Tzav. It is important to remember that impurity (tumah) is not about hygiene as much as it about meeting the "spiritual conditions" for participation in ritual.  For instance, while various natural factors can create a state of ritual uncleanness, some causes of uncleanness (e.g., caring for the sick, giving birth, burying the dead, etc.) are actually commendable. In fact, even some of the Torah's most important sacrificial rituals caused a state of uncleanness in the offerer (Lev. 16:26, 28; Num. 19:7-8). The Red Heifer sacrifice made the priest who sprinkled its ashes tamei (unclean), even though the defiled person became tahor (pure) through the act of sprinkling. In light of this, it is clear that uncleanness is not the same thing as sinfulness, and therefore purity and impurity are not necessarily related to good or evil.

Nonetheless, there is some ambiguity surrounding the case of a person afflicted with a skin disease called "tzara'at" (צָרַעַת), which was regarded as a "plague" in the skin of the flesh.  In physical terms, the metzora (person afflicted with the disease) was quarantined from the camp, perhaps to minimize the risk of infecting others. In spiritual terms, however, the metzora was regarded to be in a protracted state of "impurity" that made him or her unfit for fellowship with the community. Unlike other natural causes that rendered someone impure, however, the sages associated the metzora with the phrase "one who brings forth [speaks] evil" (i.e., motzi ra: מוֹצְאִי רַע), and they thereby concluded that evil speech (i.e., lashon hara) was the principal cause of the disease itself. The sages said that God punished those who speak evil with middah-keneged-middah -- "measure for measure" justice, as can be seen regarding Miriam's lashon hara about Moses and her subsequent affliction with tzara'at (Num. 12:1-10). Since spreading evil reports divided others and caused isolation and loneliness, the metzora would be afflicted (with tzuris, troubles) and spiritually ostracized from the fellowship of Israel. In other words, there seems to be some "crossover" between the idea of uncleanness and sinfulness in the case of the person afflicted with tzara'at....

It is interesting that tzara'at could only be diagnosed by a kohen (priest), not a doctor. In other words, it was a spiritual malady that required spiritual discernment to both diagnose and treat. If someone was diagnosed with tzara'at, they were forced to leave society and undergo a period of mourning and teshuvah (repentance).

Lashon hara is traditionally defined as saying something bad about another person even if it happens to be true. In other words, "evil speech" involves spreading evil (even if true) reports, or expressing a negative or critical spirit about others. Such behavior is explicitly forbidden in Lev. 19:16. Yeshua told us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34), and further warned us about the unthinking use of our words: "But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall account for in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by you words you shall be condemned" (Matt. 12:36-37, see also Matt. 5:37). Note, however, that this does not mean that we are excused from making righteous judgments (John 7:24). Sometimes it is the mark of a coward to refrain from speaking the truth. As Albert Einstein once said, "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." We must "speak the truth in love," even if that means sometimes offending those who wish to excuse or overlook evil behavior...

A midrash states that when the children of Israel first heard the laws of tzara'at, they despaired and became very afraid. Moses reassured them by telling them that tzara'at was a sign from God that they were indeed a holy nation, since it is His way of encouraging them to do teshuvah in order to be in fellowship with Him.  Likewise God sometimes disciplines us for our sins (Heb. 12:7-8) for the purpose of granting us the gift of teshuvah (2 Cor. 7:10). We must therefore strive to make our conversation and the inmost intent of our hearts "captive to the obedience of the Messiah," blessed be He (Matt. 5:37; Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 1 Tim 4:2; etc.). Our thoughts are the "seed" for our actions...

In the New Testament we read how Yeshua healed various "lepers" and even touched them (Matt. 8:2-3, Mark 1:40-41). The healing by Yeshua is paradoxical, since anyone who touches someone afflicted with tzara'at became (ritually) unclean themselves, and yet we know that Yeshua was entirely without sin or impurity. He alone is the Healer of our uncleanness before God, and through His touch we are made acceptable for true spiritual worship. Thank the LORD God of Israel! The Lord Yeshua visits and heals us outside the camp! It is the prerogative of the LORD God of Israel to "touch" those afflicted with tzara'at and heal them based on their teshuvah, and in like measure, Yeshua entered the "leper colony" of humanity to heal those who cried out to Him.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and His love reaches down to those who are afflicted and oppressed on account of their uncleanness. If you call upon Him, He will likewise touch you and restore you to fellowship with God. 

Blessed be His Name forever.

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