Tzara’at, the skin discoloration mistranslated for millennia as “leprosy,” is a curious disease. It is not contagious—it was only acquired by virtue of speaking badly of other people. It was a physical skin discoloration caused by a spiritual defect. The “metzora,” the sufferer with tzara’at, had to stay outside the city and inform all that he or she was spiritually impure.
-Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe
Judaism does not believe in free speech.
Talking ill of your neighbor, even if it is the truth, is unequivocally banned. In fact, the Talmud (Erchin 15b.) equates gossip-mongering with idolatry, licentiousness and murder—the three cardinal sins—combined!
Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “King David’s soldiers would fall at war, for although they were completely righteous, tale-bearing was widespread among their ranks… Ahab’s militia, however, although they were notorious idol-worshippers, were victorious on the battlefield because of their exceptional camaraderie . . .” (Pe’ah 1:1.)
Apparently, G‑d takes greater offense at the badmouthing of His children than at the badmouthing of Himself!
In some ways, then, the gossiper is the worst sinner of all. As such, his “punishment” teaches us much about the nature of all the punishments prescribed by the Torah.
-Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson
Commenting on this week’s Torah Portion Tazria–Metzora is a difficult task, at least if I don’t want to seem repetitive. After all, I’ve been “bashing” lashon hara or “evil speech” for a few days now as a problem I have with religious people and in how such speech destroys God’s reputation and all our lives.
It is thought in some circles of Judaism, that the cause of tzara’at in ancient times was evil or ill speech. The consequence was that, after the condition was confirmed by a Priest (with the cry of “Unclean!”), the metzora was set outside the camp. There was a period of waiting and then re-examination. If the metzora was declared clean, then he or she undertook a certain set of rituals and then could re-enter the camp. If not, then they had to wait some more and the process would repeat itself. Presumably, anyone who was a metzora would eventually be declared clean and then re-enter the camp of God.
But what if someone was never declared clean? What if the disease wouldn’t go away? I guess that would mean not only the symptoms would remain, the skin disease, but the underlying cause would keep hanging around: talking ill of your neighbor (and your neighbor ultimately could be anyone).
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
I suppose that’s the closest New Testament equivalent to the condition of the metzora who sinned against his or her neighbor by gossiping against them. Well, it’s not as if the metzora didn’t exist in the days when Jesus walked in Israel:
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
The word rendered as “leper” in verse two is probably a rather poor translation or there was no Greek word that captured the Hebrew “metzora.” It seems that, in one fell swoop, Jesus forgave the metzora of his sin and cured his physical and spiritual ailments.
In some sense, it’s a shame we don’t suffer from tzara’at today. If our sins were as plain as the noses on our faces, perhaps we would be much more diligent in avoiding sin. Then again, to the degree that there was such a law that required the metzora be examined and isolated from the camp, I guess people under such a law weren’t able to avoid such a sin, even knowing the consequences.
Still, it seems cruel. Why isolate someone from the community if they’ve sinned? We see examples in both the Tanakh and in the Apostolic Scriptures. The metzora endured temporary (hopefully) exile, while the passage from Matthew 15 teaches that a person gets “three strikes” before they are “out.” Do they ever get back in? How did the metzora get back into the camp?
Rather than talk to others, he needed to talk to himself.
This wasn’t about revenge; it was about reflection.
He wasn’t being hurt because he’d hurt others in the past. He wasn’t even being isolated so that he wouldn’t come to socially isolate others in the future. He was simply being given the opportunity to get to know his present self.
People who hurt and isolate others are lonely and in pain themselves. Those who try to destroy other people’s security and happiness are themselves often sad and insecure.
The Torah—which is concerned with kindness, not power—sees the sinner as a victim, not an enemy, and therefore recognizes his need to be strengthened rather than weakened. This, the Torah perceives, cannot be done in the presence of others, but has to be done alone.
In the presence of others, he would see that which he lacked. Alone with himself, he was able to see that which he possessed.
This isn’t hard to understand. Any parent who has put their child in “time out” understands what is happening. This is what parenting experts and educators call “logical consequences.” If you can’t get along with your community (your brother, mother, playmate), you don’t get to be with them for a certain period of time. If you sin against your brother (in Christ), and you don’t repent, you don’t get to be with your brother or any of your brothers, presumably until you are able to repent.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Oh, yes. When they do repent, you take them back. That’s what happened to the recovered metzora and what was supposed to happen to the brother who sinned against you. When they repent, you take them back. Even if they sin against you later and then repent, and then sin against you later, and then repent, and then…
Gee, really? Is this like a sin and repent and forgive revolving door? I suppose there must be limits.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
–1 Corinthians 6:9-10
That sounds pretty harsh, but then again, if someone is willfully and habitually sinning, are they really saved at all? Are they really members of Messiah’s “sheep pen?” Can we flaunt the will of God to His Face and still expect that He will write our names in His book of life?
Why are we sometimes exiled from the community of brothers?
And so, ultimately, this was a therapeutic time for the metzora, focused not on hurting him but on curing him. Rather than confine him, this procedure aimed to free him.
Could this be the reason that the Torah portion which describes the metzora’s impurity, likened in Jewish literature to spiritual death, (Talmud, Nedarim 64b.) is called Tazria, which means “conception,” or the beginning of new life? (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 22, pp. 70ff.)
I suppose there’s a certain merit in the idea of isolating yourself when you realize that you are living a double-minded life. Why wait to be publicly humiliated when you can stop it now, take a “time out,” and turn to God to get yourself straight. How that’s implemented depends on your sins. Are you a gossip? Are you a drunk? Are you into “inappropriate adult material?”
For some of that, you might not be able to deal with it alone and in fact, being alone might make it worse. Sometimes you have to withdraw from your usual social avenues and connect with a group or individual who is there specifically to help you out with your specific problem.
The closest ancient analogy is the Priest, who was responsible for the initial and subsequent examinations of the metzora. The metzora’s counselor during isolation was God. In modern times, we continue to need God, but sometimes he sends us additional, human help.
And there’s hope for life after “tzara’at.”
Life isn’t out to get you.
It’s out to be gotten by you.
And if and when in life you are forced to punish, do it like a pro.
Don’t hurt out of weakness; repair out of strength.
A life under repair might not look pretty, at least in the beginning, but if the life is truly being repaired, that means productive work is being done. Give it time. Give God time to work with you (and me). Jesus told Peter to forgive repeatedly, over and over again, so that none should perish but everyone come to repentance.
13 thoughts on “Tazria-Metzora: Time Out”
We got a call last night from one of Jim’s family members. He had been on the phone with two other, older family members, and the “oldsters” didn’t realize the phone was still off the hook when they thought they’d hung up. The older woman began to bash the younger man, saying all kinds of unkind things about him. The younger man was devastated, because he thought the older woman loved him, and she was being so unkind. We noticed the same problem with this older woman when we visited last fall; she can hardly say a good word about anyone, even her close friends. The really hideous thing is that her mother was the same way, and the “older woman” would hate it when her mom did that. It’s soooo sad.
Human beings are so sad, Michele, especially when we discover the ones who love us speak so poorly about us. Jesus told his disciples that everyone would know they followed him by how they loved each other. So far, we’re not doing such a good job.
What’s even sadder is that when younger, we’d NEVER hear her say anything bad about anyone; she was of the “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” persuasion. Age, loss and pain has changed her outlook. So this is very apt: “People who hurt and isolate others are LONELY and IN PAIN themselves. Those who try to destroy other people’s security and happiness are themselves often SAD and INSECURE. The Torah—which is concerned with kindness, not power—sees the sinner as a victim, not an enemy.” The older woman rejected Christianity years ago because of attitudes she saw in the church, and because of her career as a science professor led her to question scripture. So she’s sad, lonely, insecure, in pain — and lost. Heartbreaking.
Guess I need my own blog, huh?
Age, loss and pain has changed her outlook.
I read the following story a long time ago. It never left me:
It is said that if you cut off the limb of a starfish, it will grow back. If you do it again, it will still grow back. But if you continually repeat the process over and over, the arm grows back but more deformed each time. I think that’s what happens to some people who get hurt over and over again. They keep “growing back” but eventually, their spirits become deformed, twisted, and no longer capable of showing love.
thanks for this terrific expounding of this Torah Portion. I have found it particularly challenging. your thoughts have really helped.
Shalom, friend. Pete
Thanks, Pete. Good Shabbos.
1 Corinthians 5:5.
I have often wondered about tzaarat and the applicability to believers. I don’t want to stop a person from reaching to the light, but I can see the logic in separation. The question comes up more and more with homosexuality.
If I ever led a congregation, I suppose that the mechitza and the halacha of shomer negiah could similarly be applied to such a “couple,” in keeping with the holiness of the place as well as not stopping a person from reaching to HaShem or Messiah. Affections at venerated proceedings and touching are not allowed for couples in an orthodox setting, so nobody could claim any kind of discrimination.
Shomer negiah does seem to dissolve much of that.
Good Shabbos all.
…you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
–1 Corinthians 5:5
I hadn’t really considered this verse, especially as applied to gay people in the congregation. But then again, most traditional congregations wouldn’t attract gay individuals or couples to the best of my awareness.
Shomer negiah is generally the separation of males and females in the congregation, at least to some degree, to address issues of modesty or sexuality. Not sure that applies to the original intent of my blog post, which was a person voluntarily (or sometimes not) separating from the congregation (ideally on a temporary basis) because they are having a “sin problem” that is affecting the congregation, and need to seek assistance to resolve whatever the issue happens to be.
Good Shabbos to you as well, Drake.
I understand what shomer negiah is, but I like the solution insomuch that it holds couples to the same standards as it holds those with unsanctioned relations. There is not just separation from without, but also from within. Although it does not deal with karet state due to a “sin problem,” I wanted your thoughts on it as a solution to the dilemma. I know an MG who struggles with this, expresses earnest love for HaShem, and has with his partner taken a vow of abstention. In other words, he is grappling and struggling. Can I send him off? Can I sever a man who grapples with himself and G-d?
If we apply shomer negiah, 1. I am not stopping someone from reaching out to G-d, but 2. I am not giving oxygen to something that is sinful. If a gay man or two gay men came and asked me to attend, I would have a hard time simply saying “beat it.” I could not make them “members” until they renounced it.
Or maybe as you said: “That sounds pretty harsh, but then again, if someone is willfully and habitually sinning, are they really saved at all?”
I just don’t want to have to explain to HaShem why a person who was struggling had none of my support.
The Master dined with sinners, Paul says to cut certain ones off. Maybe he felt Gentile former pagans were weaker in that regard? And of course the Master was never weak.
The protocol for this seems opaque when considering context.
Whatever the case, I will avoid at all cost the semblance of approval of that kind of life. That should take precedent, I think.