Tazria – A Precious Disease
Parshat Tazria is often read together with Metzora. The content of the two are similar, dealing mainly with the tzara’at affliction in its various forms and the procedure of treatment and purification.
Tzara’at, often described as leprosy, manifests itself in a discoloring of the skin on one’s body, garment or walls of one’s home. While it may have similar symptoms to leprosy, tzara’at is in fact a spiritual disease with physical symptoms. Hydrocortizone and antihistamines would be ineffective in treating tzara’at. The ‘doctor’ to be visited when contracting tzara’at is the kohen, who would have been trained to identify this condition and who would advise the patient of the proper course of action.
We have succeeded in eradicating smallpox and we consider it a great accomplishment that in most parts of the world the polio virus and malaria is non-existent. Other forms of harmful bacteria are also kept under tight control. It is a source of pride to the science community that these diseases are under control and we are ever continuing our efforts to eliminate other harmful diseases. We inoculate ourselves with vaccinations for all sorts of common diseases; even the common flu is finding it more difficult to ensnare us in its clutches. How fortunate we are that tzara’at is not a disease that is presently among us!
Yet, the opposite is true. Our tradition bemoans the fact that tzara’at has left us. Strangely enough tzara’at is seen as a very positive element in community life.
The Talmud explains that tzara’at would affect one who displays a haughty arrogance towards another, speaking negatively about the other. A happy society is one that functions with mutual respect among people. Negative speech about another is an abuse of this respect and it undermines the harmonious existence of society. Tzara’at would affect such an individual who has stained the pure fabric of society. A stain would appear on the house, garment or skin of the offender, putting him in a very uncomfortable position. Treatment and atonement included seclusion from the community for the duration of the disease, removing the offender from the community he has harmed by his negative speech.
This disease is no longer in effect. When negative speech about another was rare, an exceptional occurrence, tzara’at would manifest itself as a reminder that such behavior is counterproductive and intolerable in the community. When such speech became commonplace, however, when disparaging talk was no longer extraordinary and exceptional, the efficacy of tzara’at was diminished and it ceased to manifest. We, as a society, have lost the ability to tune in to the high frequency of spirituality on which tzara’at broadcasted. A high pitched siren cannot be effective for the hard of hearing. Tzara’at served as a barometer of societal harmony. It is a finely tuned instrument. You can’t use a cooking scale with a limit of 500grams to measure the weight of your luggage before traveling. It takes a larger scale to accommodate heavier weights, a scale which is more crude.
Negative speech flows from a sense of pride and haughtiness. A humble person will not normally badmouth another person. He is not troubled or offended by the perceived failings of another. He does not try to elevate his own prestige by climbing upon the back of another.
Humility of one of the highest values of the Torah and it is the cornerstone of character. A humble person is not easily angered, nor does he have motive to be dishonest. One with a heavy ego, on the other hand, is quick to take offense when his pride is insulted and is motivated to raise his stature even at the expense of integrity. The ideal society envisioned by the Torah is one with a prevalence of humility. In such a context there is room for subtle reminders to protect the purity and sublime harmony of community. When we can become sensitive enough to appreciate such subtleties we may merit its return.