This week’s parsha describes the process of purification that a person would go through in Biblical times if they were stricken with the ailment known as tzara’at. A person with tzara’at — a metzora — had to leave the camp until this skin ailment disappeared, and before returning the camp they were to be purified in a special ceremony run by a kohen.
This raises two very compelling questions — why did the metzora have to leave the camp at all, and why don’t people get tzara’at anymore, anyway?
To answer this, we must consider the underlying point of tzara’at. The commentator Sforno says that tzara’at was not a mere skin disease, but was a physical manifestation of a deeper spiritual malady. According to the Sforno, tzara’at came as a punishment for the sin of speaking lashon hora, gossip. When one speaks lashon hora, one puts oneself above someone else in disparaging them, and acts, even unintentionally, to damage that person’s reputation in the community. Therefore, as a consequence one must be physically separated from the community to take time to reflect and atone. The Sforno continues to say that in our times we don’t experience tzara’at because, paradoxically, we’re not on a high enough spiritual level to be affected physically by our spiritual maladies.
Today, transgressions such as gossip are no less wrong, but have become so mundane and ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine gossip being so rare that it causes our bodies to react physically, and severely.
But even without the spiritual malady of tzara’at, the lesson remains the same — after we do something wrong it is crucial that we take a bit of time to separate ourselves, regain perspective, reflect, and contemplate how to improve ourselves. We give “time outs” to little kids, we refer to prison as “doing time;” there is a lesson, albeit less punitive, that we can all take from this — that it never hurts to take time to be alone and figure out what went wrong, in order to make things right.
Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- When in your life has taking time alone helped you to make things right?
- If they know that time alone is the only way to get better, why do you think that God commands the tzara’at to leave the camp? Why do you think the parsha presents this dynamic?