All Hidden Things Must Eventually Come to Light | Parashat Metzora
By Avraham Eisen
Originally published in Hebrew: http://www.bina.org.il/parasha-mezora-19/
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes the ways in which the high priest must diagnose and purify a series of skin diseases, the most significant of which being “Tzara’at” (often mistranslated as leprosy). In the biblical conception, the body's lesions do not express only physical illness but are an external manifestation of the internal and moral malfunction found in the patient. As a result, alongside the treatment process, the infected person must undergo a process of atonement and rehabilitation before they can return to the community. A study of the biblical stories reveals that even the leadership of the People of Israel were not immune to these diseases: Moses, whose hand turned white with Tzara’at at the burning bush; Miriam, who was stricken with Tzara’at after gossiping about Moses' wife; Naaman, the captain of the Canaanite army in the Book of Judges; and even King Uzziah.
Rabbi Yehuda the Levite, in the midrash Bamidbar Rabba, lists the various moral failings which lead one to be struck by the disease:
“Rabbi Yehuda the Levite son of Rabbi Shalom said: Tzara’at occurs on account of eleven sins: cursing the name of God, sexual impropriety, bloodshed, saying something untrue about one’s fellow, haughtiness, trespassing, lying, robbery, false testimony, desecrating the name of God, and idol worship. Rabbi Yitzhak said [also]: the evil eye. And our rabbis said [also]: blasphemy.” (Bemidbar Rabba 7:5)
Despite the many differences between these sins, what they have in common is that they are all generally done in secret, away from the public eye. Yet through the affliction of Tzara’at, they become visible in a clear and physical way that requires the afflicted person to be removed from the camp, out of fear that they might infect others. As such, the moral corruption does not remain within the hidden and private realm of the individual, but rather receives a public manifestation that allows neither the sinner nor the society to ignore it.
Nevertheless, the Biblical law does not keep the afflicted person in indefinite quarantine, but rather presents a series of actions that allow the sinner to return from his/her corrupt path and rejoin the community. Thus, after a period of seven days, the afflicted person can generally return to the community following a series of magical practices. Without going into the details of the specific practices, it can be said that the guiding principle here is that the separation from the community is not permanent, but rather defines the symbolic boundary between acceptable behavior and behavior that requires restitution and correction, only at the end of which the sinner can return to being part of the community from which s/he was separated.
Today, at the end of an election period particularly filled with mudslinging and accusations, manipulations and treachery, some of which public and certainly much more hidden from view, we must remember that such words and actions, as is the way of the world, will ultimately emerge in unexpected places and be visible to all. We can preempt the plague, not wait for all the stages of discovery and separation, but remember that the real goal is ultimately bring everyone back together into the camp. Therefore we should not be satisfied with condemnation and ostracization. We must act for healing and purification, at the end of which the individual and society will hopefully find a place where physical health and moral health thrive in harmony.
Avraham Eisen is the Director of BINA’s Education Department.