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.