Parashat Tazria introduces the guidelines for determining bodily tzara’at – the manifestations of tzara’at on a person’s body. We find among the laws of tzara’at one surprising and counterintuitive detail – that if the discoloration appears on a person’s entire body, he is not considered a metzora (a person stricken with tzara’at), and he does not attain the status of impurity associated with tzara’at (13:13). A person becomes a metzora if one spot or area on his body is discolored in a manner which meets the qualifications of tzara’at, but if his entire body is discolored in this fashion, he is not a metzora. Different approaches have been taken by the commentators to explain this seemingly peculiar anomaly.
Rav Yitzchak Karo (uncle of Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh), in his Toldot Yitzchak commentary, suggests an explanation based on the famous tradition viewing tzara’at as a punishment for the sin of lashon ha-ra – disparaging speech about other people. People generally speak lashon ha-ra, Rav Karo writes, for one of two reasons. Some spread negative information about other people with the specific intention of damaging their reputation, to make them disliked. Rav Karo explains that such forms of lashon ha-ra would be punished by standard tzara’at, which requires the metzora to live in isolation outside his city. As he strove to cause people to live “alone,” scorned and rejected by their peers, he is forced to live in isolation.
Many times, however, people spread negative information about others not with the intention to cause harm, but in the hopes of boosting their own social standing. Speaking disparagingly about others tends to attract attention, as people are naturally eager to hear about their peers’ faults and failings. And so it is common for people to spread rumors, disclose embarrassing information, and poke fun at others not to hurt other people’s reputation, but for the sake of their own social stature, to draw attention to themselves. This form of lashon ha-ra, Rav Karo suggests, would be punished through a tzara’at infection that covered the individual’s entire body. Such a person specifically would not be determined impure and thus quarantined, and would instead remain in his city – drawing attention to himself by his unusual color. As he sought to be the center of attention by bringing shame to others, he would become the center of attention through his own humiliation, by looking unusual. Rather than being isolated, this person would live among his usual circle of friends – those whose admiration and approval he so desperately sought – and he would be embarrassed to show his face, as a punishment for trying to be the center of their attention at other people’s expense.