Parashat Tazria: Leprosy, a bit of a sore issue?
This whole section seems so yucky and earthy to our modern sensitivities that we almost think it has to be consigned to the ‘olden days’. How do we even begin to connect with a section which talks about discharges and emissions, how these make you unclean? What about the uncleanness itself as a concept? Is this merely ritual, sin orientated or spiritual too? What can we learn from all this that challenges the modern mind and perceptions? The key to understanding where this passage on Metzora (skin affliction) is coming from is to comprehend the fundamental ‘geography’ of what is happening here. Whatever these skin afflictions may be (and it is clear that they are not leprosy in the strict biological and medical definition), the result was being put outside the camp in isolation. You were unclean.
Being outside the camp meant that it was not possible for you to act in a communal way; community life became impossible. This was a disaster: most if not all of Jewish life involves some sort of community, even on a family level. But it was actually far worse than that. If you were outside the camp, there was no way you could draw close to G-d; He was after all in the centre of the camp. He was the very heart of everything and you suddenly were banished from His presence, security and protection. To drive the point home, there was a physical distance between you and G-d. This tells you something about the nature of Tzara’at. This is clearly not just a slight skin infection or even a disease in the medical sense. This was brought on by something spiritual. In fact, Lev 14:13 gives us the clue; a sin offering has to be brought upon being cleansed. The root cause is sin and sin drives you away from His, the Lord’s, presence. Another clue is in the cleansing process afterwards; it was the priest who declared you clean, not a doctor. Forgiveness took a central role in being cleansed.
What was the sin? The Torah gives us clues again. In 2 Kings 5, Num 12:10, 2 Sam 3:29 and Deut 28:27,35 we can see, through the actual examples given, that these afflictions are a direct result of disobedience: lashon hara, or gossip, a loose tongue, slander by word of mouth, or verbally undermining the authority of leaders whom G-d has raised up. Miriam did this with Moshe when she received her outbreak. It is otherwise known as giving an ‘evil report’, and is exactly what Ya’akov is talking about in his letter in the Messianic Writings. The same tongue used to bless and curse which sets fire to anyone and anything it touches; destruction by word of mouth. The ritual to make clean again makes it clear what sins are at the core of this. Firstly cedar wood is used because as Rashi states it is wide and tall and symbolises haughtiness and pride of man. Secondly hyssop is used with crimson thread, using the dye of a lowly plant, because the hyssop bush is a low bush which exists in scrubby conditions, showing us humility. Taken together it equals a visual narrative that spells out ‘Humility, the antidote for pride’. Pride causes a loose tongue.
This sin would drive you outside the camp. Here you would be unable to worship and be a part of the community of G-d. In case we think this is draconian, we should all pause to consider that it is precisely through the actions of loose tongues, gossip spread abroad, lies and even truths told to cause harm, that damage is caused in any community. It disrupts the unity, causes division and strife, internal feuding and splits. Most if not all communities that are destroyed are brought low by this sin. Communities are rarely destroyed from without (that causes people to pull together), most usually from within. Food for thought.