Parashat Metzora: The opportunity offered by Tzara'at
by Rav Itamar Eldar
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Rav Itamar Eldar
In this week's parasha, we read about the plague of tzara'at (leprosy) and the ways to become purified of it. Tzara'at is a skin disease, to which the Torah assigns ritual impurity, which requires a purification process connected to the Mishkan and its priests. The fact that a skin disease is regarded as a source of ritual impurity has been thought provoking, and has led Chazal and the great Chassidic masters in their wake to the recognition that tzara'at constitutes an external expression of an inner process which is what actually requires purification and repair.
R. Yehoshua ben
Levi said: There are five [instances of the word] Torah with respect to a metzora
(leper): "This is the Torah of the plague of tzara'at (Vayikra
13:59); "This shall be the Torah of the metzora" (Vayikra 14:2); "This is the Torah of him
in whom is the plague of tzara'at" (Vayikra 14:32);
"This is the Torah for all manner of plague of tzara'at" (Vayikra
14:54); "This is the Torah of tzara'at" (Vayikra 14:57).
"This shall be the Torah of the metzora" - one who slanders (motzi shem ra). This teaches you that
whoever speaks lashon ha-ra (evil speech) violates the five books of the
Torah. Therefore Moshe admonishes
Tzara'at, according to R. Yehoshua ben Levi, is a punishment for speaking lashon ha-ra, and it is from this that we learn the severity of this transgression. Chazal follow this approach in many sources, but it seems that we must expand the canvas, for the plague under discussion strikes not only at people. The Torah teaches us about tzara'at of garments and tzara'at of houses, and in essence we are dealing with a type of plague that spreads through everything.
And the Lord spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying, When you come into the land of Cana'an, which I give to you for a possession, and I shall put the plague of tzara'at in a house of the land of your possession; and he that owns the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, It seems to me there is as it were a plague in the house. Then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go into it to see the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to see the house. (Vayikra 14:33-36)
Rashi cites the words of Chazal in Vayikra Rabba on these verses:
This was a good tiding to them that these plagues would come upon them, because the Emorites concealed treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during the whole forty years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in consequence of the plague they would pull down the house and discover them. (Rashi, ad loc.)
appear to have been troubled by the formulation: "When you come into
may have wanted to distinguish between tzara'at afflicting the human
body and tzara'at afflicting houses, and say that house tzara'at,
not only is it not a punishment, but rather it is a good tiding, sort of a
promise. The tzara'at afflicting the house and the need to destroy the
house will expose the treasures hidden by the Emorites in the houses of the
TIKKUN OF THE LAND
the Chassidic masters as well identified an element of "lekhatchila" in tzara'at that afflicts houses, and they tried to provide the phenomenon with a more comprehensive explanation. In their usual manner they tried to locate this explanation on a more spiritual plane. R. Arye Leib of Gur, author of the Sefat Emet, writes as follows:
verse, "When you come into the
The Sefat Emet, following the words of the Midrash and the holy Zohar, also sees the tzara'at that afflicts houses as an expression of a process that is positive, and perhaps even necessary, as is stated in the Midrash.
The process begins with the enormous gap between the uncleannes of the land of Cana'an which took root in the houses during all the years that the sins of the Emorites who resided in the land continued to accumulate, on the one hand, and the holiness of Israel who entered that land and continually rose in their spiritual level, on the other. This gap, so it seems, is true not only about that particular situation of a defiled land and a holy people. Rather, it is an expression of every gap between vessel and light, between a limited world and infinite aspiration. This gap is also true about human beings which contain within them a Divine soul, that soul being born by a body of flesh and blood.
Here the Sefat Emet teaches us an astonishing principle. It is precisely at the point that the light becomes elevated and the gap between it and the untensil grows, that tzara'at appears as an expression of the vessel's inability to contain that light. Tzara'at, according to the Sefat Emet, exposes, as it were, the sin and the impurity, and forces a person to become purified of them, to take apart that portion of the house to which the tzara'at has adhered. Phenomena which appear to be negative, an eruption, an expression of a release of passions and loss of control, sometimes reflect the soul's desire to cast off those dark places, in order to purify itself and prepare its vessels for a new and loftier spirit.
The Sefat Emet's most novel point in this passage, which follows the words of the Midrash which in and of themselves are quite daring, is that we are dealing
with a necessary process: "When you come into the
"good tiding" of the plague of tzara'at that the Torah
promises Israel as they come to the land is the promised spiritual progress
that will lead in its wake to a process of refinement on the material plain.
This latter process is by no means simple; it will be painful and at times it
will require destruction. It is, however, the only way to bridge the almost
infinite gap between spirit and matter, between the impurity in which we live
and the great aspiration to ascend the
Following this approach, we can say that it is precisely the absence of tzara'at that contitutes a negative indication of the absence of spiritual development.
A similar idea is voiced by R. Levi Yitzchk of Berditchev:
"And I shall put the plague of tzara'at in a house of the land of your possession, etc." See Rashi that this is a good tiding on account of the treasures that were buried by the Emorites. The rule is that the primary joy is when a person raises sparks for the service of the Creator, blessed be He. And when a person raises sparks, he then raises the inner aspects within the sparks, and the externals he casts away, and because he casts away the externals, the plague appears in the houses. For the chaff within the spark is putrid. And here where God, blessed be He, commanded "You shall save alive nothing that breathes" (Devarim 20:16) of the seven Cana'anite nations, the spark was in the houses. This is what Rashi explained that it is a good tiding because of the treasures that they have hidden, which are the sparks. This is a good tiding, for it alludes to joy, and this is the essence of joy, raising the sparks. (Kedushat Levi, Metzora)
Tzara'at, according to R. Levi Yitzchak, constitutes the end of a process of clarification. The raising of sparks and removal of kelipot find expression in the plague of tzara'at, when once again tzara'at is described as part of a process of refinement and elevation.
The great Chassidic masters teach us that every process of sanctification neccessitates a stage of "waste ejection," and that we should not be frightened by this waste. On the contrary, the waste teaches us that we are in the heart of a process of refinement and purification.
tzara'at as a
R. Shelomo Rabinowitz of Radomsk opens a new vista before us:
"This shall be the Torah of the metzora
and the priest shall go out of the camp." It seems to me
that the allusion in the matter of going out of the camp is that inside the
The author of Tif'eret Shelomo relates to two central mofits in the metzora's purification process - leaving the camp and calling out, "Unclean, unclean." This call is strange, according to the Tif'eret Shelomo, because the term yikra is generally used when a person calls out to another person to come to him, whereas here the purpose of the call seems to be to warn passers-by to stay away from him. For this reason, argues R. Shelomo of Radomsk, the term yikra is inappropriate.
His answer is that indeed this call denotes a call to come and not to keep away. The metzora calls out to the Divine sparks concealed in the world of kelipot and externals that are outside the camp, to gather to him and return with him to the camp in purity. This call is not a call to keep away, but rather a call to draw near. The externals and the kelipot, contends R. Shelomo of Radomsk, are found on the periphery, among the stragglers, outside the holy camp. It would seem fitting that the kelipot should dwell there outside the camp, and that we, the camp dwellers, the holy nation, should have nothing to do with what is on the "outside." The picture, however, is not so dichotomous as it might first appear. The place of the kelipot is outside, but along with the kelipot are found also the Divine sparks that are held captive within them, and wish to be redeemed, so that they may once again be included in the holy camp. Every such kelipa holds captive within it Divine vitality that belongs inside the camp, but is bound by the chains of the externals.
R. Shelomo of Radomsk teaches us that the only way to redeem the Divine spark from the kelipa is by going outside the camp. Someone who dwells securely in the holy camp is unable to open a channel and make a connection with the kelipa, and when such a channel is missing, there is no possibility of having any influence and raising the spark that is concealed within the kelipa.
The metzora is forced to leave the camp, to depart from the holiness, to separate from the collective communality, and to remain alone - "he shall dwell alone," far from the tumult of life and the din of the holy - "outside the camp." It is precisely at this moment of uncleanness and distance, of isolation and detachment, that the metzora is made aware of the mission assigned to him in the guise of tzara'at "He shall call, Unclean, unclean!" Suddenly, the metzora finds himself in the midst of the world of kelipot, among the externals, in uncleanness. Now, if he does not lose his spirit, and if his soul is connected to the mishkan and its priests he can, from this place, go back and raise with him all the sparks that are being held captive in the world of kelipot and externals. It is only the metzora, dwelling among the kelipot amid their uncleanness, who is able to conduct a dialogue with them, and thereby raise them and return them to their holy source.
THE ADVANTAGE AND DISADVANTAGE OF INNOCENCE
Opening a channel of dialogue with the kelipot and the externals constitutes a mystery that exacts a great price, but from which profit and benefit may also emerge. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes as follows:
Now the people
of Israel who know with clear knowledge and based on true tradition the clear
truth of our holy Torah, are not at all sensitive to all the sublime ways in
which our holy Torah with its Divine power wipes out all its hidden
adversaries. For they do not at all understand that there are opponents that can
damage our holy Torah and our whole general approach. But surely there are the metzora'im, who are sent out of the
camp, and go to the end of the camp of
Rav Kook as well talks about the metzora's leaving the camp. With that departure, the metzora losses the innocence of those who walk in the path of Torah tucked away in the holy camp, who are not at all familiar with those forces that oppose the Torah and holiness. The holy camp and the Shekhina that rests within it do not allow these forces to come near the gates of the camp. All of these forces are pushed away already at the gate, and therefore those who dwell in the camp are not at all aware that these opposing forces even exist.
The disadvantage of innocence, contends Rav Kook, is that those who are in the camp are also not aware of the Torah's strength and ability to repel the opposing forces that surround it. This can only be understood by the metzora who is forced to leave the camp, and sees with his own eyes the opposing powers, the uncleanness, the Sitra Achra, and also how the holiness pushes away the uncleanness and does not allow it to come close.
And it was
through the metzora'im who recognized
the hand of God while they were at the end of the camp of
Rav Kook does not say that the metzora'im redeem evil, but rather that they recognize evil and how God and His Torah confront and defeat it.
Rav Kook teaches us that the price exacted by tzara'at is the "loss of innocence." The people of Israel so deeply believe in our holy Torah, and so strongly adhere to it, that it does not even enter their minds that some alternative might exist, that the Torah could have opponents, that there could be an outlook that strives to undermine the truths of the Torah and our faith. They live in tranquility and innocence, and their lives are whole and innocent. They have no struggles, they have no conflicts, they do not have to offer explanations. All is fine and good. "The Torah of the Lord is innocent, restoring the soul" (Tehilim 19:8).
The metzora'im who go out of the camp lose their innocence. They become exposed to the
Sitra Achra, to entire worlds that oppose the Torah, to
an alternative - philosophy, science, culture, and other religions. Countless
attacks, objections, attempts to uproot anything grounded in holiness, and
anything that calls out in the name of God. This is the price paid by the metzora'im who become defiled and assimilated in the world that is outside of
Torah. However, as soon as they see how the Torah stands up to all the attacks,
how it shines with a great light in the face of conflicting theories, against
all the learned attempts to undermine it, how it pushes away from its doorstep
any attempt to undermine the truth of faith the Torah shines for them with a
sevenfold light. And they, from their perspective, from their experience, from
what they have undergone, teach all of
Innocence, then, according to Rav Kook, exacts a price, the inability to see how the Torah confronts all attempted attacks, and how the Torah's light shines so strongly that no shadow of heresy or uncleanness can darken it. They do not see the battles fought by the Torah, the noble way in which it confronts every passing spirit, and therefore they do not know how to recite song. This they must learn from the metzora'im who are outside the camp.
Lekhatchila or Bedi'eved
While Rav Kook talks about the illumination of the Torah that emerges from the exposure to evil and the kelipot, R. Shelomo of Radomsk speaks about the redemption of evil, about raising the Divine sparks hidden within it and returning them to the camp. All this is made possible by the metzora.
This principle is particularly important in our spiritual world, and sometimes even daring and dangerous. R. Shelomo of Radomsk teaches us that in order to elevate evil, in order to influence and draw near those who have become lost, one must "get oneself dirty." One cannot preach from the outside, to call out to the unclean while dwelling in the holy camp: Come to us, come to us!
The metzora who dwells among the outcasts in their troubles, who identifies with their pain, who feels their insult, who himself becomes ostracized only he can call out to the unclean to return and draw near. This mystery, teaches us R. Shelomo of Radomsk, is the incomprehensible mystery of the red heifer whose ashes purify the unclean and defile the clean who come to purify those who have contracted ritual imurity from a corpse.
Whoever deals with the ashes of the red heifer comes into contact with death, smells its stentch, and experiences its taste, and therefore becomes unclean. But this is the only way to reach a person who has contracted ritual impurity from a corpse, to restore him to the living.
The Chassidic tzadik who is the
foundation of the world goes down "from sea to sea, and from the river to
the ends of the earth" (Zekharya
9:10), in order to elevate the
fallen world. In the course of this descent, he dirties himself, his hands
become sullied with blood, and he immerses himself in the muck of the material
world. But it is precisely in this way that he succeeds in reaching the last of
his followers, and even those who are not his followers, and elevating them.
This was the way of Avraham Avinu and Yosef the Tzadik when they went down
What we have said here straddles the delicate and dangerous boundary between "lekhatchila" and "bedi'eved." To a certain degree, R. Shelomo of Radomsk expands on the words of the Midrash regarding the lekhatchila and necessary side of the plague of tzara'at.
Just as the tzara'at that afflicts houses comes to bridge the gap between matter and spirit and to refine the matter, so too tzara'at that afflicts a person comes to allow, and we might even say, to force him to go out of the camp, and to raise the "external" world to God. The metzora, according to this, is sort of an agent, who has received a mission from God.
A difficult problem arises regarding the boundaries between the various formulations, each one being different from the others.
One says: "If you have already fallen into this place, then at least make use of the fall in order to raise the world into which you have fallen."
Another says: "You fell into this place in order to raise the world into which you have fallen."
And a third one says: "It is sometimes necessary to fall into a place like this in order to raise the world into which we wish to fall."
Which is the correct approach and how should we understand these Chassidic teachings?
Tzara'at, so it seems, is not a human initiative. Nobody suffers with the plague of tzara'at out of his own free will, and nobody wishes to suffer with it. In great measure, this understanding corresponds to the first formulation, and at most with the second formulation. On the other hand, the statement, "sometimes a tzadik must go down from his place to the dwelling place of the externals," appearing in the words of R. Shelomo of Radomsk, corresponds more closely with the third formulation, that speaks of an initiative on the part of man.
When must we respond to the circumstances that have led us to the dwelling place of the kelipot, and when must we initiate some sort of descent? Can anyone do this, or perhaps only the tzadik who is confident that he will not fall and become stuck there himself? To what kind of kelipot and externals is one permitted to descend, and to what kind is one absolutely and under all circumstances forbidden to come near?
There is no clear and consistent answer to these questions, and every Admor and every thinker fashioned a different approach depending upon his own general outlook and heart.
The possibilities are many and varied, but the common denominator of all of them is the intense awareness of the fact that it is precisely immersion in uncleanness, whether lekhatchila or bedi'eved, that can serve the individual and the nation as a catalyst for renewal, for building, for closing the gaps and raising the entire world to God. It is this immersion in uncleanness that contains the great redemption and the great light that, with God's help, will illuminate all of our illnesses and all of our plagues in the light of the cure of the stream going out from the Holy of Holies for cleansing and for sprinkling.
 The fact that the Sefat Emet goes beyond the houses of Eretz Israel and relates also to the body and soul, seems to expand the idea of lekhatchila so that it covers as opposed to the aforementioned Midrash - not only tzara'at that afflicts houses, but also tzara'at that afflicts the body.
 This idea is reminiscent of one of the principles of holistic medicine, that it is precisely when the body overcomes an illness that side effects, such as a rash or the like, appear, which serve to eject the toxins and purify the body.
 Ibn Ezra writes (Vayikra 14:34): "'When you come into the land of Cana'an' because this applies only in the land [of Israel] because of the greateness of the land, for the Temple is in it, and the [Divine] glory is in the Temple." Here arises another direction which may be understood with the help of another biblical passage.
Following the sin of the golden calf, God decided that since the people of Israel are a stiff-necked people, He will not go up in their midst, "lest I consume you along the way." It is precisely God's intimacy with Israel that does not allow for sins to be tolerated, and so when God's presence in the camp of Israel intensifies, so too does the danger of a punishment of destruction increase. When He is far from the camp of Israel, the spiritual demands made of Israel decrease, and thus the danger of destruction is reduced. This seems to be the way that Ibn Ezra understood the relationship between the plague of tzara'at and Eretz Israel. In other lands there is no house tzara'at, because those places are not holy, and they can tolerate the sins of Israel. This is not the case with Eretz Israel, which immediately threatens to spew forth those who sin within it.
While Ibn Ezra sees tzara'at as an expression of the enhanced status of Eretz Israel, the Sefat Emet sees it as an expression of the enhanced status of the people of Israel, and of a land that is trying to close the gap.
 The complex picture that emerges from the words of Rav Kook
presents the ambivalence regarding exposure to the world "outside the
camp." On the one hand, exposure is a type of tzara'at and abandonment
of the camp that causes a loss of perfection and innocence. On the other hand,
it teaches all of
 R. Shelomo of Radomsk alludes to the Kavanot of the Ari z"l regarding nefilat apayim. The purpose of the fall and descent is to raise from the fallen places all the sparks that are being held captive there in the wake of the breaking of the vessels. To a certain degree we can say that in order to redeem the broken shards, we ourselves must become broken.
 It is told about R. Uri of Strelisk, the Saraf, that he was filled with fiery passion in his yearning to conjoin with the Infinite and totally nullify all of the material world. His followers, so it is related, were all very poor; money, livelihood, and material things were all regarded as dirty words in his court. It is related that in his youth, R. Uri was ordered by his master, R. Shelomo of Karlin, shortly before he died, to go and study Torah with R. Mordechai of Neskhiz, disciple of R. Yechiel Michel of Zloczow. When he arrived at the Rebbe's door, he saw a wealthy, but crude Jew seeking a blessing for a large financial transaction that he was about to conduct, and the Rebbe of Neskhiz gave his blessing with a shining face, generous heart, and rare patience. R. Uri was both angry and astonished that the Rebbe allowed this material creature to "drag him down."
R. Mordechai of Neskhiz answered him: Now I understand why our master, R. Shelomo of Karlin, sent you to me. You know how to cleave to the Shekhina, but you still don't know how to draw near and elevate a Jew like this. It is this that you must learn."
(Translated by David Strauss)