The Plague of Tzara'at

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

 

PARASHAT TAZRIA - METZORA

 

The Plague of Tzara'at

 

by Rav Yonatan Grossman

 

 

            In this week's parasha, we read about the disease of tzara'at and how one can recover from this state.  The laws of the metzora appear as part of a group of laws that involve the kohanim, since they are the ones responsible for the purification and the recovery process of the metzora, at least in regard to his entering the vicinity of the Mishkan or Temple vicinity.

 

            What we learn essentially from this situation is that the Torah relates to tzara'at as a spiritual disease, meaning a disease whose outcome (and presumably its cause as well) affects the world of the Mishkan and the encounter with God.

 

            I do not mean to imply that from a biological and physiological standpoint this disease is simply inexplicable and that it afflicts a person in a miraculous way.  Doctors who are now reading this shiur can certainly tell us of a skin disease that fits the Torah's description (I believe that two skin diseases, vitiligo and psoriasis, resemble the Biblical description of tzara'at).  My intention is rather to point out that since the Torah treats the disease with priest and sacrifices, it is to be understood within the context of the Temple, the world of serving God and Divine Providence.  Thus, the verse in Devarim emphasizes: "In cases of a skin affliction, be careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you. Take care to do as I have commanded them" (Devarim 24:8).

 

            Indeed, the priest has two roles vis-a-vis the patient: First he has to diagnose the disease, whether this is really tzara'at, and second, he has to atone for and purify the patient.  His first role is similar to the role of a doctor, and the priest must learn the different manifestations of the disease and perform an exact diagnosis that will clarify the treatment process.  However, even at this stage, if the priest decides the patient is RITUALLY pure (meaning not afflicted with tzara'at in a way that is halakhically impure), he may return to the Mishkan and bring his sacrifices, even though he is still diseased.

 

            However, despite the connection between this disease and the laws of the priests, we are still surprised to find it textually in the place that it appears.  The direct continuation of Shemini should be the parasha of Acharei Mot: "Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord" (Vayikra 16:1).  Surprisingly, separating these two events (the eighth day and the command about the Day of Atonement which came "After the death of the two sons of Aharon"), we read about different ordinances (forbidden foods, the tum'a of a woman after childbirth; nida, zav and zava, of which the most unusual is the commandments about the metzora.  We could say that the text is pointing out to us the different states that causes one to become ritually impure and thus unable to enter the Mishkan (the animals that we are forbidden to eat are intrinsically tied with ritual impurity; however, this requires its own lengthy analysis).  However, we see at once that a special status is given to the disease of tzara'at, for which the text goes on at especially great length. It seems to me that there is a special significance to tzara'at, which will enable us to understand why its commandment (and the other ritual impurities) are found separating the eighth day and the commandment for the Day of Atonement.

 

            In order to understand the significance of this disease, we will turn to two different sources where the disease appears in Tanakh, two cases where the text emphasizes in an explicit way that tzara'at comes as a punishment from God.

 

1.  Miriam's tzara'at (Bamidbar 12: 1-15).

 

            Before the spies were sent by Moshe to tour the land of Canaan, the Torah tells us an amazing story about Miriam and Aharon:

 

"Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman!  They said, 'Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe?  Has He not spoken through us as well?' ... Hashem came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, 'Aharon and Miriam!'  The two of them came forward, and He said, 'Hear these My words: When a prophet of Hashem arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Hashem.  How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moshe!'  Still incensed with them, God departed.  As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white tzara'at!"

 

            It is not completely clear how Miriam (and Aharon) sinned. What is wrong with taking a Cushite woman?  There are different explanations given regarding this sin; however, it is our wish to focus on the exact words said by Miriam and Aharon: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well? ...."  In other words, the criticism that is heaped on Moshe actually stems from his unusual spiritual position and perhaps even from his leadership position.  This matter is further clarified by God's reaction which emphasizes the singularity of Moshe's prophecy: "Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Hashem."  As a punishment for her words, Miriam is turned into a metzora as white as snow: "As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white tzara'at!"

 

2.  Uzia's tzara'at (Divrei Ha-yamim 2 26:16-21):

 

"When he was strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly and he trespassed against his God by entering the Temple of Hashem to offer incense on the incense altar. The priest Azaria, with eighty other brave priests of Hashem, followed him in and, confronting King Uzia, said to him, "It is not for you, Uzia, to offer incense to Hashem, but for the priests, the sons of Aharon, who have been consecrated to offer incense. Get out of the Sanctuary for you have trespassed; there will be no glory in it for you from God."  Uzia, holding the censer to burn incense, got angry; but as he got angry with the priests, tzara'at broke out on his forehead in front of the priests in the House of Hashem beside the incense altar. When the chief priest Azaria and all the other priests looked at him, his forehead was afflicted with tzara'at, so they rushed him out of there; he too made haste to get out, for Hashem had afflicted him."

 

            In this story, King Uzia attempts to offer up the incense in the House of God, a task assigned only to the priests.  God punishes him and the plague of tzara'at begins to spread on his forehead (he remains a metzora until the end of his life).

 

            The two stories have a similar literary structure. The tzara'at attacks Miriam when she is standing in the Tent, after the Divine Presence withdraws.  The tzara'at of Uzia attacks him in the House of God.  In both cases, the text describes two stages: First there is the appearance of the disease, and then the onlookers see it.

 

"As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white tzara'at; when Aharon turned to Miriam he saw that she was stricken with tzara'at."

 

            And similarly with Uzia:

 

"... but as he got angry with the priests, tzara'at broke out on his forehead in front of the priests in the House of the Lord beside the incense altar.  When the chief priest Azaria and all the other priests looked at him, his forehead was afflicted with tzara'at."

 

            The consequences of the disease are also the same in both cases.  There is a separation from the place of the Divine Presence and from society. About Uzia we read: "He lived in isolated quarters as a metzora, for he was cut off from the House of the Lord" (Chronicles II 26:21).

 

            And about Miriam we read: "So Miriam was shut out of camp for seven days" (Bamidbar 12:15).

 

            If we carefully examine the common ground shared by the sins of these two personalities, we will come to the conclusion that both of them challenge religious authority.  We already mentioned with regard to Miriam that the text emphasizes that the spiritual status of Moshe is subjected to criticism (aside from Miriam's words, the matter is highlighted by God's reaction).  We find a similar emphasis in the text by King Uzia with regard to the priests.  Uzia is not motivated by a religious awakening or religious emotion, he is seeking to acquire total social authority.  Aside from the political power that is in his possession, Uzia also wants the religious authority held by the priests (or the prophets).  The text emphasizes this when it contrasts Uzia to the priests that follow him: "He trespassed against his God by entering the Temple of Hashem to offer incense on the incense altar.  The priest Azaria, with eighty other brave priests of the Lord, followed him in."  They even carry out a conversation that defines the role of each of them: "It is not for you, Uzia, to offer incense to Hashem, but for the priests, sons of Aharon who have been consecrated to offer incense.  Get out of the Sanctuary for you have trespassed; there will be no glory in it for you from God."

 

            When the punishment is brought upon Uzia, the text emphasizes the priests standing next to him: "But as he got angry with the priests, tzara'at broke out on his forehead in front of the priests ..."  The tension between the two authorities comes to a head when Uzia is expelled from the House of God by the priests.

 

            Miriam questions the prophecy and religious authority of Moshe and becomes a metzora.  Uzia also questions the special religious status given to the priests and becomes a metzora.

 

            If this is indeed the reason for tzara'at in the Torah, we can then understand why the role of purification from the disease falls on the shoulders of the priests - not only are the priests responsible for the Mishkan (the direct consequence to the metzora is expulsion from the House of God), but also because, in this way, the metzora will be taught to accept higher religious authority than his own.  He must come before the priest who will examine the disease which has spread on his body, and the priest will decide what his religious status is to be.  The priest controls the whole process of healing from ritual impurity.

 

            In this context we should consider another story about tzara'at that occurs in Melakhim.  After Elisha succeeds in curing the tzara'at of Na'aman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, Na'aman wishes to give Elisha a present; however, Elisha refuses: "As Hashem lives whom I serve, I will not accept anything" (Melakhim II 5:16).

 

            After Na'aman leaves Elisha, Gechazi, Elisha's attendant, decides to run after Na'aman and take presents from him: "Gechazi the attendant of Elisha the man of God, thought: My master has let that Aramean Na'aman off without accepting what he brought!  As Hashem lives I will run after him and get something from him."  So Gechazi hurried after Na'aman and took presents from him.  When Elisha understood what Gechazi his attendant had done, he punished him: "Surely the tzara'at of Na'aman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever."  And as [Gechazi] left his presence, he was snow-white with tzara'at" (Melakhim II 5:27).

 

            In the story before us it also seems that the theme of [challenging] religious authority (this time regarding a prophet) is at the center.  Na'aman, the commander in chief of Aram's army at first doubts the ability of Elisha, prophet of God, after he tells him to bathe in the Jordan River: "But Na'aman was angered and walked away.  "I thought," he said, "he would surely come out to me and would stand and invoke God by name, and would wave his hand toward the spot, and cure the affected part."  However, after he is cured, Na'aman is taught a lesson, "Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!" Through his tzara'at Na'aman learns that God is the true God and that Elisha is His prophet (indeed it seems that at the beginning Na'aman reasons that the power is in Elisha's hands and therefore Elisha teaches him, by not accepting a gift for himself, that this is not so.

 

            In contrast to Na'aman, Gechazi questions his master's decision and decides on his own to take the presents from Na'aman.  Gechazi's questioning the prophet's words is further highlighted when you compare the following conversations:

 

Elisha - "As Hashem lives, WHOM I SERVE, I will not accept anything."

 

Gechazi - "As Hashem lives, I WILL RUN AFTER HIM and get something from him."

 

            Elisha swears in God's name that he will not take anything from Na'aman (and therefore the verb "whom I serve" is appropriate because it shows passivity [God is active]). In comparison, Gechazi swears in God's name, that he will take something from Na'aman (and therefore the words "I will run after him" appear which express an extra effort and activity).

 

            Because Gechazi questions Elisha's authority and does not accept his teacher's decision, Gechazi is "rewarded" with tzara'at.  At the same time that Na'aman, commander in chief of Aram's army, learns the lesson [of Divine authority] and is cured of tzara'at, Gechazi, the attendant to a prophet of God, fails, and therefore the tzara'at of Na'aman infects Gechazi and his offspring forever.

 

            Now we will return to the problem that we brought up in the beginning, about the place for the commandments of the metzora in this week's parasha.  In last week's shiur we dealt with Nadav and Avihu's sin, and we showed that the purpose of the eighth day is Divine Revelation before all of the nation of Israel, as it occurred at Mt. Sinai.  Nadav and Avihu sinned in their attempt to offer up the incense offering and veil the Divine Revelation before the eyes of Israel.  Now the opposite problem occurs.  Not priestly elitism (as was expressed by the actions of Nadav and Avihu), but the questioning of the special position accorded to the priests.  Now arises the possibility that the nation might think that there is no special significance to the priests who work in the Mishkan, since God has appeared to the entire nation and not to a specific group.

 

            In order to balance this situation, the Torah teaches us, right after the death of Aharon's sons the extra strictures that the Mishkan demands from its appointees (purity), and especially emphasizes the disease of tzara'at, which comes as a punishment for the questioning of the status of God's special servants, whether a prophet (as with Miriam and Gechazi) or a priest (like Uzia).  In the description of the disease of tzara'at and in the description of the dependence of the patient on the priests, the Torah balances the picture.  Indeed on the eighth day God is revealed to all of Israel and all of the nation stands before God; however, there are still servants who stand closer and who are responsible for the activity in the Mishkan and one may not question their special status.