In this week’s parasha, we learn about a serious skin affliction called “tzara’at,” (leprosy) for which the bible offers a unique treatment.
Instead of going to the doctor to get a suitable cream, the afflicted person must turn to the priest who sends him into isolation until the illness passes.
We do not encounter a treatment like this for any other illness.
Normally, a person who falls ill must be treated in the regular fashion – meaning medical treatment in accordance to a medical expert’s advice. Why, then, when someone gets leprosy, does the bible send the afflicted person to the kohen (priest)? The treatment the kohen uses seems completely inefficient. It does not offer the afflicted person any advice on treating his illness, but merely sends him off into isolation. The illness, seemingly, goes away by itself. So how does the isolation contribute to the cure? The bible tells us about people who got leprosy two times, and in both stories, the illness came about as a direct result of speaking inappropriately of others.
The first incidence has to do with Moses, Moshe Rabeinu. When God instructed him to go to Egypt and liberate “Am Yisrael” (the people of Israel), Moshe did not want to go.
He tried to relieve himself of the heavy burden of leading the people by claiming that they will not believe him and will not accept his leadership. The direct result of this claim was: “…and behold, his hand was leprous like snow,” (Shmot 4, 1-6).
The second incidence takes place with Moshe’s sister Miriam, when she exchanged secrets with her brother Aharon and expressed criticism about Moshe. There too, the result came quickly: “and behold, she was afflicted with leprosy,” (Bamidbar 12, 1-10).
Our sages concluded from these two stories that the biblical leprosy was not a normal physical phenomenon, but served as a sign for a person who spoke negatively about another. There were sages who inferred from the word “metzorah” (afflicted with leprosy) the hint of the phrase “motzi shem ra” – meaning “one who slanders.”
From this, we can understand why the afflicted person was sent to the kohen rather than to a doctor. The problem that led to the disease was not physical, but rather emotional- spiritual and the treatment must fit the problem.
The kohen’s solution is spiritual and ideological guidance – and the treatment he offered the person afflicted with tzara’at was unique.
The kohen sent him into isolation. He had to sit alone for a week, sometimes more, and not meet with anyone else. What was the significance of this isolation, and how did it help the disease pass? Man is a social being. There are many advantages to living in a society, the biggest of which is that we can give to another and become better and more moral people. But, as with anything good, it can be abused. A person used to slandering, bad-mouthing, degrading and revealing others’ faults uses society to destroy. Such a person – the bible reveals to us – is not fit to enjoy the benefits of a normal society.
Sit on your own, the bible tells the person afflicted with leprosy, for one week, perhaps even for two, and try to live alone. Is it easy? Is it pleasant? Is it better for you to be without friends? Did you, by speaking negatively about another, cause society to disintegrate, lead to disputes between people, between a husband and wife, between brothers? After a short period of personal introspection, the afflicted person would reach the conclusion that an isolated life is unpleasant.
He would understand that by speaking negatively, he caused people to live a life of loneliness, ruined their social connections and made them miserable.
When he decides to change and utilize his social skills to benefit others, his leprosy would pass and he would be able to go back to mixing with people, this time as a more mature person who comprehends his humane and moral role within society.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites.